In summary

Many California jails failed to track crucial pandemic data, making it difficult to gauge the effectiveness of COVID policies. There are also signs that sheriff’s offices, which manage local jails, did not comply with public health mandates.

Guest Commentary written by

Aparna Komarla

Aparna Komarla

Aparna Komarla is the founder and director of the Covid In-Custody Project.

At least 42,000 COVID cases have been identified among incarcerated people in California’s county jail system since March 2020, according to law enforcement data obtained through hundreds of records requests. Another 18,000 COVID cases were reported among sheriff’s office employees, a subset of whom work inside the jails. 

These striking infection rates would not have been disclosed to the public if not for the California Public Records Act. Unfortunately, most sheriff’s offices in California have not been transparent about COVID outbreaks or deaths that occurred in custody throughout the pandemic. While the state’s prison system, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and a handful of sheriff’s offices provide online updates about outbreaks in custody, most local departments do not. 

California is one of few states with an oversight agency for sheriff’s offices, known as the Board of State and Community Corrections, which acts as a central authority over the otherwise independently managed county jails. But while the BSCC has asked sheriffs to voluntarily share COVID data, they have not mandated it. The resulting dataset is incomplete and often erroneous.

For starters, COVID vaccination rates and the total confirmed cases for staff and incarcerated people are absent. Several counties, such as Merced, Riverside, Santa Cruz and El Dorado, provide little data or have simply chosen not to participate.

In the absence of a requirement, the decision to maintain records of cases and vaccinations and make the data publicly available is purely up to local sheriffs. As a result, the impact of the pandemic on roughly 60,000 people incarcerated in California’s county jails on a given day is largely undocumented, which the Covid In-Custody Project has sought to change.

Without data, public health leaders and community members are left in the dark about incarcerated people’s health outcomes during the pandemic. They do not have the necessary information to make recommendations or policies that can prevent outbreaks or deaths. 

We requested records from all 58 counties, and about 70% have responded with at least one data point. Many claim they do not have responsive records or refused to turn them over, citing HIPAA rules. 

Several counties had massive outbreaks over the last two years. Contra Costa, San Mateo, Sonoma, Monterey, San Diego, Santa Clara, San Francisco, Sacramento and Alameda counties all reported outbreaks in which anywhere from 10% to 20% of the incarcerated population was infected on a single day. 

Though sheriff’s offices have provided some data on cases and vaccinations, no county (except Alameda) provided a thorough and comprehensive response to our request to track compliance with the state Public Health Officer’s surveillance testing mandates. To prevent transmission from correctional staff to incarcerated populations, the Department of Public Health last year mandated periodic testing for unvaccinated staff. So far no county has provided a week-by-week record of unvaccinated staff members in the jail, the percent that complied with the mandate, and those that did not.

The state health officer also instituted a vaccination mandate for medical staff and non-medical staff working in medical areas of jails, which indirectly requires sheriffs to track employees’ vaccination status. But several sheriff’s offices said they were not documenting any vaccination rates. We were often redirected to Wellpath, a private contractor that provides healthcare services to jails. But since private agencies are not subject to public record laws, our access to this data is restricted.

If sheriff’s offices indeed do not have records on their compliance with the state’s health orders, it raises questions about whether the orders were implemented to begin with. Implementation would require tracking employee vaccination statuses and testing results, and consequently week-by-week records of compliance would have to exist. But several sheriff’s offices argue that they are in compliance despite not having any records to prove it.

So while there have been over 60,000 confirmed COVID cases among incarcerated people and jail staff that we are aware of, there is no way of knowing if public health orders were effective. State health officials said they do not have any records from sheriff’s offices to demonstrate compliance.

We are clearly only scratching the surface of the pandemic’s impact on California’s county jail system. The data retrieved so far shows that outbreaks and poor vaccination rates have not received enough public attention and scrutiny. There are also signs that several sheriff’s offices have not been complying with the state’s public health mandates. 

The Covid In-Custody Project is continuing to push for more data transparency using public record laws. The hope is that the data will help researchers and public health leaders learn how to respond better to future public health crises, especially when it comes to people behind bars.

Special recognition to the interns that supported data collection efforts: Anumita Alur, Anjali Govindapanicker, Sophia Baltasar, Suzanne Stitt, Yu Na Choi, Madeleine Malin, Avynash Bains, Claire Beckwith, Anchal Lamba, Kai Kang and Meng Li.

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