A coalition of activist groups on Thursday called on Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern to release all inmates at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin because they say their health is at risk due to the new coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking at a virtual news conference organized by the Santa Rita Jail Solidarity coalition, Amber Akemi Piatt of the Oakland-based nonprofit Human Impact Partners said, "Release everyone, especially those most vulnerable to getting infected."
James Burch of St. James Infirmary, a nonprofit organization serving sex workers throughout the Bay Area, said a failure by Ahern and Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley to release more inmates from Santa Rita "will lead to the deaths of our loved ones."
The activists held their news conference in the wake of the disclosure on Thursday that 12 inmates at the jail have tested positive for the coronavirus so far, with results for seven additional inmates still pending.
In a separate news release, Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods called for the District Attorney's Office and other county court officials to immediately release all inmates who have less than six months or less to serve at the jail.
"We've been sounding the alarm for more than three weeks and now we're on the verge of the virus sweeping through the jail," Woods said in a statement.
Woods estimated that there are about 115 inmates who are scheduled for release within the next six months, including about 60 who are scheduled to be released by the end of May.
"We want these people out right now. What possible justification can the District Attorney offer to keep them locked up for three more weeks in the midst of this virus?" Woods said. "A county jail sentence should not be a potential death sentence."
The jail had an average of about 2,650 inmates before the coronavirus outbreak but its population is now down to 1,957, sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said Thursday.
Kelly said Ahern, in conjunction with O'Malley, Woods and Alameda County Superior Court Presiding Judge Tara Desautels, has already released about 600 low-level offenders from Santa Rita.
Kelly said an additional 54 inmates facing misdemeanor and low-level felony charges appear to be eligible to be released without bail under recent guidelines issued by the California Judicial Council, and another 130 inmates may qualify to be released on low bail amounts.
He said another 214 inmates who've been sentenced could have their terms modified if the district attorney consents.
But Kelly said 90 percent of the inmates at Santa Rita are locked up for violent crimes, including homicides, sexual assaults and crimes against children, and insisted, "We cannot let those people out."
Kelly said, "Beyond every case there are victims and a mass release of inmates would have a tremendous impact on public safety."
He said, "There are jail activists in the community who want us to release everyone and empty the jail and turn the lights off and that isn't going to happen."
Some of the speakers at the Santa Rita Jail Solidarity news conference alleged that health care at the facility is inadequate and inmates who've tested positive for COVID-19 aren't being treated properly.
But Kelly said, "We have a very robust plan in place and that plan is effective."
Kelly said none of the 12 inmates who've tested positive for COVID-19 have had to be hospitalized and "all are stable and appear to be on the road to recovery."
District Attorney spokeswoman Teresa Drenick said in a statement that her office "has been working diligently for weeks with the public defender, all defense attorneys and justice partners to systematically release individuals who do not pose a risk of harm to the community or to a victim of crime."
But Drenick said, "What we cannot do is jeopardize the safety of victims or the community. We must take the necessary care and precaution to ensure the health of those incarcerated and the staff working at the jail without sacrificing the security of victims or well-being of the county."
Drenick said, "It is very disappointing that the Public Defender has chosen this time of crisis to grandstand and to make politically divisive and disingenuous statements when what the circumstances demand of all public officials is unity and collaboration."