Inmates decry lack of clean masks, testing, conditions in San Diego jails

Department officials said they are taking every reasonable precaution to keep COVID-19 from infiltrating the jails


By Kelly Davis and Jeff McDonald
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Michael McKay had been struggling with homelessness and alcoholism when he was arrested last month on a probation violation and booked into San Diego County jail.

Before the 55-year-old diabetic was laid off five years ago and slipped into a downward spiral, McKay was a dedicated father and mechanical engineer.

Now an inmate at the George F. Bailey Detention Facility, the county's largest jail, he and other detainees may be sitting ducks for the coronavirus, said his wife, Diana McKay.

"My husband is a complete wreck physically and now has been moved to George Bailey," she said. "He is at extremely high risk for exposure to the virus there.... Of course the wisdom is he should be far away from people, yet instead he is in a crowd of strangers."

So far five jail employees and three inmates have tested positive for the virus, the Sheriff's Department said Thursday.

Inmates and their family members say conditions are more serious than department officials have acknowledged. Among other problems, they cite a persistent lack of virus testing and inadequate protective gear and medical care.

As of April 9 the department had tested 62 inmates for the coronavirus — just over 0.13 percent of the people in custody and 16 more than the 46 tested by April 3.

Department officials say they are taking every reasonable precaution to keep COVID-19 from infiltrating the jails, including issuing masks to employees and inmates.

Jail officials also modified recreation times and access to day rooms to keep inmates as separated as possible, said department spokesman Lt. Ricardo Lopez.

Newly housed inmates are issued hygiene kits that include soap, he said.

Inmates with flu-like symptoms are referred to the on-site nursing staff for evaluation and placed into isolation when deemed necessary, Lopez said. Medical providers decide when to test inmates for the virus, and employees are screened for a fever before starting their shifts each day.

Withheld informationExcept for a press release issued last month announcing that a nurse at the Las Colinas women's jail tested positive for COVID-19, sheriff's officials have not told the public or inmates which facilities have experienced outbreaks.

Deputies and medical staff are told which jails are infected for their own safety, Lopez said.

He added that protocol is that anyone entering a jail must wear cloth masks, inmates must wear masks outside their cells, and Medical Services Division personnel must wear N95 protective masks and gloves.

A sheriff's deputy who did not want his name published because he is not authorized to speak to reporters said there is no consistency across the San Diego County jail system in enforcing COVID-19 protection practices.

"It's not a uniform policy as far as how it's supposed to be done," he said. "We have four different shifts. One team does it one way, another team will do it another way."

Even so, the deputy said, the department is confronting the threat as well as might be expected.

"Some things we could do better but, in the given situation, they're doing the best they can," he said.

San Diego architect Randal Jay Ehm is worried about his son, Dustin, one of more than 550 men held at the East Mesa Reentry Facility.

"He and other inmates are extremely concerned about conditions at the jail, with respect to COVID-19," Ehm wrote in an email last weekend. "They asked me to take photos of them during a video call with my son last night."

The photos show inmates holding signs saying, "Social Distancing Not Possible," "60 Inmates in Every Dorm" and "Non-Violent Death Sentence."

Christy Boudreau, whose brother is among those incarcerated at the George Bailey jail, said deputies are placing inmates who seem to be sick in the general population with no explanation.

"No one is cleaning or disinfecting the area tables, phones, etc., so it's putting other people at risk," said Boudreau, who provided a photo of inmates hoisting a bed sheet painted with the message "We Don't Deserve 2 Die."

"These people have families who are scared for their lives," she said.

'Filthy' masksEdward Stewart, an inmate on the medical floor at the San Diego Central Jail, said in a phone interview on Wednesday that the population in his module shrank from 70 inmates to roughly two dozen, although many who remain appear to have serious health conditions.

"There are guys (lying on) the floor, soiling themselves, and we have to clean that up," he said. "Staff won't come in and do that."

Stewart said he and other inmates who have money for commissary items have been buying antibacterial soap to share with others in the module.

"They won't give us cleaning supplies, which is terrible in this situation," he said. "I just got done pouring out a urine container for a guy who's in a wheelchair, because we have to. We've got to take care of each other."

Stewart said inmates were given cloth masks on April 3, with strict rules on when they were to be worn and a promise that the masks would be washed twice a week. But no one has come to collect them, he said.

"They're filthy," Stewart said.

Recent letters from inmates to the Union-Tribune echo those concerns. The Union-Tribune is withholding the identities of those inmates because it was not clear from their letters they had consented to having their names published.

People are locked inside some cells for 22 hours a day or more, the letters say, and calls for medical help are put off for days or ignored altogether.

"Sick call requests take more than a week to be seen by a doctor or nurse," one inmate at George Bailey told the Union-Tribune in a letter postmarked April 1. "There is no soap in the restrooms, nor has there been in the six months I have been here."

An inmate at the Vista jail said he had been on a hunger strike to protest the conditions. He is afraid he won't survive.

"I worry if I'll ever see my loved ones again," he wrote March 30. "Our ventilation system has been turned off. There is no air in our cells. We've taken to sleeping on the floor, where it's cooler."

A woman in custody at Las Colinas, who said she was placed into quarantine due to the nurse who tested positive two weeks ago, said deputies are doing very little to help them.

"The only thing that has been done by jail staff is that we are locked down 48 hours and (let) out just for shower," she wrote. "We have not been tested for the virus and weren't even aware that staff had tested positive."

The Las Colinas inmate said she is isolated with 12 other women in a community cell, supposedly awaiting an early release.

"Something should be done immediately before this virus gets out of control," she wrote. "Please note that the deputies here aren't keeping us up to date other than getting mad when asked why we are being locked down as if we are murderers."

Lopez said Las Colinas recently went on lockdown so the jail could investigate any contacts the infected nurse may have had, but the precaution has since ended.

Growing discontentMichelle Vyvjala of Rancho Bernardo sent the Union-Tribune an audio file of a recent conversation she recorded with her boyfriend, who is an inmate at San Diego County jail.

On the recording, he said deputies are not following the procedures they are supposed to be following, and almost no one is being tested for the virus even though inmates and deputies are exhibiting symptoms of being sick.

"We're not six feet apart; there's people that are sick," said the inmate, who asked that his name be withheld because he fears retaliation. "They have not been tested; they have not been taken to the hospital and they are coughing like crazy."

The discontent is getting worse by the day, he said.

"Some inmates are growing so angry, they're throwing their food trays through the chow holes," he said.

The Sheriff's Department rejected most of the complaints, saying that officials are fully compliant with guidelines posted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lopez disputed that inmates are being locked down for 22 hours at a time.

"Since the COVID-19 crisis, we are currently running modified dayroom operations, meaning modules are cycling into the dayrooms in reduced numbers," he wrote in an email. "This is being done in order to facilitate as much physical distancing as possible."

A number of advocacy groups have called on California sheriffs to release inmates for whom COVID-19 poses the greatest risk — people over the age of 70 and those with medical conditions such as lung disease, AIDS or HIV, diabetes and chronic liver disease.

The "crowded, confined and limited ventilation facilities create a grave risk of COVID-19 transmission," attorneys from the Prison Law Office and Disability Rights California wrote to the Sacramento sheriff last month.

Over the last several weeks, the San Diego Sheriff's Department has released approximately 1,000 inmates, or 20 percent of its average daily population before the pandemic.

Most of the inmates recently booked into San Diego County custody have yet to be convicted of a crime. Instead, they face charges in a state court system that has been all but frozen in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has suspended transfers from county jails to state prisons and last week announced plans to release up to 3,500 elderly and low-risk inmates to prevent COVID-19 infections.

With jail visitations curtailed, several California sheriffs have provided free, or sharply discounted, video and telephone contacts between inmates and their families.

In San Diego County jails, which have barred all in-person visits, the cost for a phone call is 33 cents per minute.

The county cut the cost of video visits in half, meaning a 30-minute session is now $2.50. At South Bay Detention Facility inmates get two free half-hour phone calls a week because the jail is not equipped with video technology.

"We continue to evaluate our operations on an ongoing basis as we deal with this crisis," Lopez said.

Vyvjala, who provided the recording of her conversation with her boyfriend, said he told her inmates have to wait through a line of up to 70 people for access to one of two telephones. Even worse, the calls are prohibitively expensive, she said.

"Those all cost money — lots and lots of money," she said in an interview. "They should be making an adjustment. Not everybody can afford to keep in touch by phone."

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