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Poor Food Quality Compounds COVID-19 Risks at Santa Rita Jail, Advocates Say

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Administrative entrance to Santa Rita jail.
Administrative entrance to Santa Rita Jail. (Courtesy of Jesstess87/Wikimedia Commons )

Last week, advocates hosted a virtual press conference to discuss what they say is a growing outbreak of COVID-19 in Alameda County's Santa Rita Jail in the wake of an alarming spike in cases at the facility in late December.

Legal advocates and family members with loved ones detained inside have specifically highlighted poor food quality and sanitation issues as COVID-19 risk factors for those incarcerated.

"Namira," who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution against her or her husband who is incarcerated at Santa Rita Jail, told KQED that conditions are jam-packed. “I’d say that there are shelters for animals that are way cleaner and better,” she said.

“As soon as he entered Santa Rita Jail, he started feeling sick. Initially, I said no, it’s just the environment,” Namira said.

But then, on the phone, she heard her spouse coughing. After talking to him, she called the main Santa Rita Jail number asking for medical attention. They told her to wait until the next morning, but she called again after a few hours.

“If there is nobody outside to be there for you — to speak on your behalf, they are very casual,” Namira said. Her husband tested positive for COVID-19 at the end of December and is now at the jail infirmary.

“He went inside totally healthy,” Namira said. “You can say the inmates did something wrong, but that doesn't mean they should be put in an inhuman situation ... They’re not getting proper meals,” she added. “You have to yell for a day or two to get one or two Tylenols.”

“I’m suffering every moment,” she told KQED in tears. “When I hear he’s not getting food — I can’t eat food. Right now I’m healthy, but it’s like I’m going through the same thing."


Last Monday’s press conference touched on why meals may be a challenge for Santa Rita Jail.

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“The major services are all for-profit functions,” said civil rights attorney Yolanda Huang speaking on the Zoom press conference.

“The food is for-profit. The medical care is for-profit," Huang said. "And when you have that system, then there is a direct incentive to reduce the quality of the medical care or the amount of medical care that's available, as well as the amount of food and the quality of the food.”

Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail, says using a private corporation to run the kitchen is a common cost-saving measure used throughout the country.

He said that Aramark, the company that runs the jail's kitchen, was chosen by the county's Board of Supervisors.

"They may be for-profit corporations, but they save taxpayers millions of dollars," Kelly said.

He also highlighted the benefit of the jail's kitchen program, which allows inmate kitchen workers to earn credits while in custody.

But Huang said the cost savings may be detrimental for those incarcerated in Santa Rita Jail, and that under the last contract she saw, the jail's budget was limited to $1.39 per meal, per inmate. She claims the jail skimps on nutritional requirements, such as the amount of vegetables given to each incarcerated person.

“They're getting away with it because there's no way to hold them accountable,” Huang said. “What are we really having the community learn when the institution that is supposed to be enforcing the rules can so flagrantly break the rules?”

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