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Prevent Spread of COVID-19 in San Diego County Jails and Our Community

Updated: Mar 20, 2020

March 19th, 2020

Sent via email

Bill Gore, San Diego County Sheriff

Judge Lorna A. Alksne, Superior Court Presiding Judge

Summer Stephan, San Diego County District Attorney

Mara Elliott, City Attorney - San Diego

David Nisleit, Chief - San Diego Police Department

Randy Mize, Public Defender - San Diego County

RE: COVID-19 Containment in San Diego County

Dear Officials:

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across San Diego County, we urge you to undertake all appropriate and CDC recommended measures to prevent infection within our county jails and detention facilities. An outbreak in our jails and detention facilities could be swift and deadly, not just for inmates, but for our communities. Now is the time for decisive preventive measures. In New Rochelle, New York, 50 cases of coronavirus were traced back to one attorney. We acknowledge the emergency changes the San Diego Sheriff and Presiding Judge have enacted and implore the County to make additional releases in order to decrease the likelihood of the virus spreading. Our focus needs to be on keeping the entire region safe and infection free.

The risk of spreading infection is especially severe in situations where “social distancing practices cannot be implemented. The underlying health conditions that cause infection and exacerbate harm tend to be very prevalent among incarcerated people. This threatens everyone incarcerated, county staff, and their families, in addition to the community at large. Every time the County introduces another person to the jail environment, the danger of spreading COVID-19 increases, as well. In light of the well-documented and unprecedented number of deaths in the San Diego County jail system, we implore you to take extra measures to ensure the safety of everyone.

Last week the California Department of Public Health warned about these risks noting that jail populations are “likely to include individuals who have chronic health conditions which weaken their immune systems” and are at “risk because respiratory pathogens may be more easily transmitted in an institutional environment.” The safest way to ensure that the jail does not become a vector for COVID-19’s spread is to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated. We recommend that anyone detained after being approved for release by a judge pending payment of money bail, and anyone who would be released for technical parole, probation, or warrant violations, should be released immediately. The unnecessary continued detention of the elderly, immunocompromised, pregnant, medically fragile, or others particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 puts the health of the San Diego region in jeopardy.

We urge you to undertake all possible avenues for limiting that peril, including:

1. Release of low-level offenders on their own recognizance (OR). Release all individuals who are not sentenced and do not fall under Penal Code 1279. Those with non-serious, non-violent charges should be released immediately on their own recognizance. Expansion of the “Emergency Bookings Acceptance Criteria” to include those currently incarcerated will greatly decrease the jail population.

2. Cite and release people charged with misdemeanors. The police and Sheriff should cite and release all individuals charged with misdemeanors.

3. Prioritize immediate release for people who are most vulnerable. Older adults and those with serious medical conditions and fragility face a higher risk for infection. The conditions that can increase one’s risk of infection include diabetes, heart disease, asthma, lung disease, and HIV. These conditions are more common among those who are incarcerated than the general population. Releasing these vulnerable groups from the jail immediately will avoid the need to provide complex medical care within the jail or transfer people to hospitals where capacity may be stretched thin.

4. Protect meaningful access to legal counsel and other pretrial support. Jails must avoid any restrictive measures that interfere with a person’s ability to obtain legal and other support to advance their case. If visitors and legal access to the jail is in any way restricted or endangered, the jail should take steps to release people who cannot afford their bail amount.

5. Ensure care and hygiene for people who remain incarcerated. The jail must follow changing public health protocols and coordinate with public health experts to communicate with staff and people in custody about preventive measures; provide adequate access to hygiene; and provide immediate testing and treatment to those who exhibit signs of infection. Access to care and hygiene must be made free, without commissary spending, fees, or any other costs that could discourage prevention and treatment.

6. Provide access to free telephone calls. The jail must allow those detained access to family. Calls from our jails are expensive and many families with incarcerated loved ones are already strained with additional costs due to the pandemic.

7. Provide coordination with reentry providers. Ensure persons released have housing, food, clothing, hygiene products, mental health services and transportation upon release. Continue working with the San Diego County Health and Human Services to provide housing referrals and vouchers for any unsheltered people. Allow persons released to contact their family and/or support system to notify them of their pending release and provide an estimated release time.

These sensible steps will help protect the public from community spread of COVID-19, while continued mass detention will not. The coalition of undersigned organizations is coordinating with other advocates and agencies to offer additional recommendations for protecting the community. We will communicate these additional recommendations to you as soon they are finalized. We know this pandemic presents a range of challenges and we share your commitment to ensuring the community’s safety and health. We urge you to take these necessary actions to save lives and maintain good order.


Pillars of the Community

Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance

Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans

Think Dignity

Center on Policy Initiatives

Asian Solidarity Collective

We the People

San Diego Showing Up for Racial Justice

San Diego County’s Building Trades Union

Alliance San Diego››››››››

San Diego Americans for Safe Access

The Justice Collaborative

UDW/AFSCME Local 3930

Californians for Safety and Justice

ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties

Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association

Minority Humanitarian Foundation

Mid-City CAN

Homie Up

Universidad Popular


Women’s March San Diego

Muslim American Society

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