corrections
Coronavirus

Jail Officer Party: Likely Cause of New Santa Cruz County Outbreak

County supervisor calls jail party “stupid and irresponsible”

A rash of Covid-19 cases among jail workers has increased scrutiny on the sheriff's office. PHOTO: JACOB PIERCE

There are now 10 confirmed Covid-19 cases among correctional officers in the outbreak at the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office. 

Also, seven inmates are in isolation while they quarantine due to possible exposure to the novel coronavirus that’s driving the international pandemic. That means that 15% of the county’s correctional officers are unable to work due to the outbreak.

Santa Cruz County contact tracers are investigating whether the outbreak stemmed from a party attended by local correctional officers. Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty says the party showed poor judgement from those involved and that it could undermine some of the hard-earned reputation by so many committed county employees.

“It was stupid and irresponsible. We’re in a crisis, and everyone needs to be vigilant,” Coonerty says. “I will say that we have hundreds of county employees that have been safely interacting with homeless people and with fire victims and with nursing home residents, and they’re doing a really good job. It’s unfortunate that a few bad actors get so much attention. But it’s a reminder that everyone needs to be responsible.”

So far there have been no known Covid-19 infections among inmates in the county’s jail population. Sheriff’s spokesperson Ashley Keehn says a majority of the impacted correctional officers work the night shift, when officers have less interaction with inmates. County officials hope that prevents spread of the disease into the inmate population.

News of the party’s suspected role in the outbreak first got out after an Economic Recovery Council meeting Tuesday. That is when county Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel confirmed, when asked, that correctional officers had attended a party, an event contact tracers were looking into.

Kris Reyes, the chair of the Economic Recovery Council, says he was disappointed to hear about the outbreak and about the party.

“Local businesses in Santa Cruz county are hanging by a thread and our public health resources are already stretched unbelievably thin,” Reyes tells Good Times via email. “If true, for the outbreak among correctional officers to be the result of a party is incredibly disappointing and a failure of leadership from the sheriff. Three weeks ago, we were in Tier 3 and businesses were open and feeling optimistic. Now we are back to the worst days of the pandemic and selfish activities, like parties, are contributing to people getting sick, businesses closing and workers losing jobs. We must do better.”

Neither Newel nor Sheriff Jim Hart has signaled any intention to hold a press conference about the outbreak, the party or the ongoing investigation.

“The safety of correctional officers, staff and inmates are paramount, and the sheriff’s office is following public health recommendations in an effort to contain this outbreak,” Corinne Hyland, a spokesperson for the county’s Health Services Agency, said in a statement. 

Hart, who’s up for reelection to a possible third term in 2022, has faced scrutiny over deaths of inmates like Tamario Smith and about officer misconduct. But he has not been taking questions about such controversies. His office issued press releases but did not hold press conferences when correctional officers were arrested for having sex with inmates in September and October. 

Apart from agreeing to an interview with GT, Hart made no formal announcement when a correctional officer was arrested for domestic violence and robbery in the weeks that followed.

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