COVID Outbreak in Humboldt County Jail More Than Triples in Size; We Talk to Inmates About What They See and Feel
Around 30 inmates of Unit 320 at the Humboldt County Correctional Facility tested positive for COVID in the last week. We spoke to several of the detainees this weekend who told us that the unit had 56 inmates when the first man, a laundry worker, fell ill after contracting COVID from a staff member. Then, as more tested positive, those infected inmates were led off in small groups until by late Sunday night, the cohort was cut by over half and those detainees left are telling us they’re afraid they’ll be next.
Please note, the inmates we spoke to have all stated substantially the same story, however, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office has not responded at this time to questions about the outbreak at the jail.
One inmate we spoke with, Frank Goree is attached to a machine that helps him get more out of breathing. “It is called an oxygenator,” Goree told us over the phone. “I have a machine that makes oxygen. They have a little hose to the nose…I have COPD.” While people with COPD are not more likely to catch COVID, if they do catch it, they have a higher risk of complications and have poorer outcomes than those who don’t.
Goree says he is awaiting trial in County jail, because he couldn’t pay bail. He says before he came to jail, he had a care provider, his girlfriend, who helped him.
Over the tinny sound of the jail phone and an occasional muffled sob, his words are hard to discern. “I’m 54 and a nervous wreck,” he apologized softly. “I’ve been crying. Sorry if it’s hard for you to understand.”
Out of his quad that began last week (a quad is a small group, generally four who sleep in the same area), Goree is the only one still left in the unit. The rest have disappeared one by one after testing positive. He thinks he’s still is testing negative because he is more careful than the average inmate. Among other COVID safety protocols he follows, he told us, “I wash my hands before and after I eat,.” He says he wears a mask though many inmates at the jail don’t. He says he stays away from other inmates as much as possible. But he isn’t vaccinated, none of the inmates we spoke to said they were.
After the outbreak began, the Correction staff offered Goree and other inmates a chance to be vaccinated but, after sitting down with a woman he described as the head nurse, he changed his mind. He said she described three possible vaccines and he had just heard of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine on the news and was worried that it could cause blood clots. He said he asked the nurse which vaccine was best and he told us she just changed the subject. He said he pressed her. “When I asked what she took, she changed the subject and just said we’re all guinea pigs at this point.” Goree said he left right then because he didn’t want to be a guinea pig. (The CDC–Centers for Disease Control and Prevention–state, “These vaccines have undergone the most intensive safety monitoring in U.S. history.” The CDC strongly recommends getting vaccines.)
Sergio Acosta, age 47, also an inmate in Unit 320, describes himself as healthy–“I work out” and COVID cautious (though also unvaccinated), but like Goree, he’s very worried. He says that he is finding it difficult to practice COVID safety protocols in jail. “We’re only allowed one mask,” he told us. And he says, “They don’t mandate everyone wear their mask…If it was me, I would mandate everyone would have to wear the mask at all times.”
He says he and other inmates take turns cleaning, but he also volunteers. “I volunteer every day just to make sure this place is completely clean,” he said. “I bleach everything.
He scoffed both at having the ability to maintain a six foot distance from others while in jail and at being able to be completely clean even when liberally applying bleach to all nearby surfaces. “Six feet…ha…seems more like people are going to end up six feet in the ground,” he told us and added, “I would think they would put us out in the yard and sanitize this place from top to bottom.”
When the inmates eat, of course, they can’t wear masks and he says they are “shoulder to shoulder.” He worried, “It is almost like open season here.”
Buddy Bear, age 44, explained that many of the inmates would like to skip eating at the communal tables, “A lot of us want to eat in our own cells but the CO’s are forbidding us to do that.”
He claimed that staff are struggling to find places to put those who’ve tested positive for COVID. “They are pretty much reached the limit for where they are putting people,” he told us.
Sean Simpson, age 35, another inmate told us that he had been a house painter in Sonoma County making decent money, but COVID derailed him. He wasn’t considered an essential worker so he had to go on unemployment and returned to Humboldt County, but here his past as a drug addict twelve years ago caught up with him. Officers searched a vehicle he was in because he was on probation and found a weapon that Simpson claims isn’t his. “The person didn’t know I couldn’t be around firearms,” Simpson told us.
Now, in jail, he says, he’s closer to COVID than he’s ever been. He’s trying to be cautious but he tells us its hard. “I’m keeping social distancing…Especially if you ain’t got a mask, stay away from me…I’ve been staying on my rack [his bed]. I don’t go out in the dayroom.”While he was talking to us over the phone, he noted, “I see seven people without facemasks…[Staff] are saying that they can’t require us to wear them….It’s funny the CO’s [Correctional Officers] can make us dress properly and wear our hoodies [but they say they can’t make us wear masks]. It should be a requirement. You should have to wear those things.”
After the first inmate, a laundry worker tested positive, Simpson told us Saturday, “About four days ago, [jail staff] woke us up telling us that we needed to start bleaching and start cleaning the day room…They rush in with medical staff all hazmatted up [and start testing]…They started testing everyone in the unit [for COVID]…[There were] seven or eight positive the very first day.”
Acosta described the medical staff as wearing masks and having a “see-through plastic covering like a raincoat but flimsy [with] a hoodie.”
After the inmates who were positive were tested and eventually identified, Acosta says they weren’t immediately taken away. “They put these eight people in a room. They are letting them back out where we are [to use the restroom]…They aren’t wearing a mask.”
In addition, he and Simpson claim a guard assisted the positive inmates then handled the lunch cart with food for the inmates who weren’t positive without changing his gloves. Acosta said, “He didn’t switch gloves in between. Even after he was asked to. He said he already did, but he didn’t. We watched him the whole time.”
After the inmates are identified as positive, they are taken to a new area and all their personal possessions have to go with them. Normally, before the outbreak, the inmates we talked to say that the CO’s would not let other inmates touch the prisoner who was leaving’s items but since the outbreak, the staff appears reluctant to touch the infected person’s possessions. “Now [the Outbreak] is happening, they ask us to do it,” Acosta told us.
Simpson said the inmates are offered incentives like “real coffee” by which he means caffeinated or an extra package of Top Ramen to help pack up the possessions. “They don’t want to do it, but they have us do it,” Simpson claimed. “It’s not fair and its not right.”
Acosta said, “They are our friends [so we do it, but] we’re putting our lives in jeopardy.”
But Simpson said he’s not helping not even for an incentive. “An incentive to clean? That’s an incentive to catch [COVID].” He adds, “I’m not touching the bed [the infected inmate] drooled all over.” He thinks the staff who have better equipment should. “You’ve got gloves,” he said. “You’ve got masks. You’ve got hand sanitizer.”
In addition to the above concerns, the inmates claim that COVID testing takes place long hours after symptoms began to show. According to several of those we talked to, a few of their fellow detainees complained of being sick, even after the outbreak was known about, and they weren’t tested again until hours after they described COVID symptoms. And they tested positive meaning that the Unit has continued to be re-exposed to people actively ill.
Bear called us late in the day, Sunday, to tell us that one more patient had tested positive. He told us the patient was given “a boat”–a type of Styrofoam bed used when no more beds are available–and told he would be taken to processing (where new arrestees are brought into the jail) to stay. This indicates, but again, we have no official word on this, that the medical section of the correctional facility is at capacity and overflow patients are being housed elsewhere.
Acosta hopes that as a new week begins, a better plan will emerge. “Somebody needs to do something,” he warned. “People are dropping like flies. I feel like we’re all going to get it. We’re enclosed in here no matter how much we clean.”
Simpson agreed. Multiple people, he said, “have been taken out of here in the last six days. It scares me and it scares my family. It seems inevitable that we’re all going to catch it.”