Public Defender Manohar Raju sent a letter to Sheriff Paul Miyamoto Monday asking for details of plans to prevent an outbreak of coronavirus in county jails. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Public defender calls for measures to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in jail

As the number of coronavirus cases rises in San Francisco, Public Defender Manohar Raju has called on the sheriff to provide a full accounting of the steps being taken to prevent an outbreak from spreading among inmates at County Jail.

Raju sent a letter to Sheriff Paul Miyamoto on Monday expressing his “serious concern” that the more than 1,100 inmates living together in San Francisco’s jails could be susceptible to the contagious disease.

“The constant flow of both staff and detainees in an out of the jails — where large numbers of people are housed in close proximity — means that a powerful virus like COVID-19 can take over quickly and easily,” Raju wrote.

Raju raised the issue on the same morning that the number of confirmed cases in The City climbed to 13. Meanwhile, the Grand Princess cruise ship docked in Oakland after being stranded at sea with a cluster of COVID-19 patients on board.

Raju sought assurances that “special” measures are in place that “go beyond existing protocols for responding to the common flu.” He requested screenings for inmates and staff, and that bathrooms be stocked with soap and paper towels.

Nancy Crowley, a spokesperson for Miyamoto, said the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department is finalizing an action plan to prevent and respond to the contagious disease if an inmate were to test positive.

“It would involve safely medically transporting them to a health facility,” Crowley said, adding that inmates could also be quarantined in certain cells and areas. “We would obviously sanitize everything.”

Crowley said the department has also emailed prospective visitors asking them to stay home if they are sick, have recently travelled to a country where an outbreak has occurred or have had contact with a coronavirus patient.

Under current policy, Crowley said inmates are screened by the Department of Public Health’s Jail Health Services for infectious diseases and other illnesses during the booking process as well as within 24 hours of being housed.

“We are doing everything that we possibly can to prevent the coronavirus,” Crowley said. “At the present, there is probably a better chance of people getting coronavirus outside of jail than inside of jail because of the screening procedures that we follow.”

While it’s unclear if inmates are being tested, Crowley said there are thus far no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in County Jail. She said the department will continue to provide soap for inmates to wash their hands.

District Attorney Chesa Boudin said he too is concerned for the safety of inmates at County Jail as well as others in the criminal justice system.

“We are focusing on making San Francisco safer for everybody,” Boudin told the San Francisco Examiner. “Public safety in this situation includes helping to minimize the spread of disease.”

Boudin said his office is considering new policies to help expedite release for some people and reduce the need for others to come to court in light of the outbreak.

Coronavirus could be another factor for prosecutors to consider when deciding whether to recommend release for an individual at arraignment if the person is not a threat to public safety, he said.

His office may also delay court hearings, and not have witnesses and victims come to the Hall of Justice as precautions, Boudin said.

Read the full letter from Raju to Miyamoto below:


mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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