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With Nearly 4,000 Cases, Fresno County Jail's COVID-19 Tally Tops Nation's Correctional Facilities

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Fresno Alliance
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So many people have tested positive for COVID-19 at the Fresno County Jail that the total number of cases now exceeds the entire incarcerated population.

According to the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, nearly 4,000 inmates and staff members have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic started, a total that the New York Times ranks as the largest of any single correctional facility in the country.

 

However, sheriff’s office spokesperson Tony Botti says the high caseload in the jail is merely reflective of what’s happening in Fresno County as a whole. Indeed, the jail’s overall positivity rate, just over 11 percent, is on a par with the county’s.

 

“We have so many people come into the jail and go out of the jail,” Botti says. “So, much like it spreads in the community and how we just had a spike in the last couple of months, the jail is really no different.”

 

That revolving door also explains why 3,800 inmates have contracted the virus, even though only 2,500 are currently incarcerated there.

 

Fresno criminal defense attorney Eric Schweitzer isn’t surprised the jail’s COVID case tally is so high.

“Fresno County dragged its feet,” he says, arguing that the jail’s administrators could have prevented many cases if only they had thinned out the population by releasing non-violent offenders deemed medically vulnerable to the coronavirus. “The public safety alarm that you should be concerned with is far more with the spread of COVID-19 and vectoring COVID-19 around” than with the risk of crime by releasing low-level offenders back onto the street, he argues.

The jail’s population did fall from roughly 3,000 at the start of the pandemic to 2,100 in August, thanks largely to a state-ordered $0 bail policy that Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims and other law enforcement officials have spoken out against. Though the jail’s population has risen back up to nearly 2,500, Schweitzer is confident the drop has made a difference. “It saved lives,” he says.

The jail has reported zero deaths due to COVID-19. Botti has not shared information publicly about how many have needed to be hospitalized.

 

The jail employs a color-coded quarantine system, in which incarcerated people are housed according to COVID test results, symptoms and exposure. Inmates are offered COVID tests on intake and every week, but their tests are voluntary, just as they are for staff.

 

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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