Just as Sacramento county proposes a new mental health jail, Sacramento county Jail inmates and staff are facing brutal coronavirus outbreaks throughout Sacramento’s two correctional facilities, Sacramento County discusses building a new mental health jail. 

The outbreak was reported to begin in just the last few weeks of 2020, when 55 inmates transferred from the Main Jail located in Downtown Sacramento, to the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center (RCCC) in Elk Grove, later tested positive for COVID-19.

Since then, COVID cases within Sacramento County jails have been on the rise with 306 reported cases between both the main jail and the Elk Grove facility as of January 20th. Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office reported on their website that along with their standard protocols, they were handling the situation by vaccinating their medical officials and “in the process of vaccinating SSO staff and inmates.”

Advocates and formerly incarcerated individuals exclaim that the COVID situation is much worse than the Sacramento sheriffs department is making it out to be. Scott Jones, the sheriff of Sacramento County has been said to downplay the COVID conditions within Sacramento county jail. Many incarcerated and formerly incarcerated have come forward with their challenging experiences within Sacramento county jail.


This is Pamela Emanuel, with 2 out of her 5 children after she was first released from prison. Pamela is on the far left wearing a light blue shirt.

Pamela Emanuel or “Pam” is a 60 year old mother and grandmother from the bay area. She was introduced to Sacramento county jail by way of a federal indictment in May of 2017. Pamela spent around 30 months within the Sacramento County Jail and was released in August of 2020.

Emanuel, who was incarcerated during the time of the pandemic, explained her experience within Sacramento County Jail as “hell”.

“The fear of corona is outrageous! They have people coming in and out of your cell constantly… There were no procedures, there was no protocol.”

Emanuel explained how the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office had been telling the media that they were lessening the changing of cells to help stop the spread of the virus.

“That’s BS! In two weeks we changed [cells] like 7 times,” said Emanuel.

Just last year, Sacramento County had a lawsuit filed against them by Disability Rights California over “dangerous solitary confinement conditions, failures to provide mental health and medical care, and disability discrimination.”

A Memorandum of agreement was reached on June 18th of 2020, which required Sacramento County Jail staff to wear mask and face coverings in the jail. Emanuel explained how officers hadn’t been wearing masks in the jail during the time she was incarcerated, “most of them didn’t wear masks, you ask them to wear masks they start laughing.”

It is difficult for inmates to keep themselves safe from COVID-19. During Pam’s stay, she requested disinfecting supplies, masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, and even filed grievances which were all denied.

In the Sacramento Sheriff Office’s weekly updates, they detail their quarantining protocols which include quarantining intake, quarantining exposed individuals and individuals with symptoms and confirmed test. Emanuel described the quarantining process to be much different.

After a person is tested and confirmed positive or showing symptoms, Emanuel explained that they would only quarantine for 24 hours or more, leaving no time to get rid of the virus and locked in a cell without a shower.

Jael Barnes responded, “That’s what those guys are worried about, [referring to inmates] is sitting in a cell for 24 hours. You can’t take a shower, you can’t do anything.”

The Barnes family photo. Jamaine Barnes can be found in the middle wearing a blue hoodie, next to Jael Barnes wearing a blue t-shirt holding her baby.

Jael Barnes is a mother of 4 from the bay area. Her husband, Jamaine Barnes Sr., is a federal inmate at Sacramento County Jail who is in because of a drug charge. He is currently still in the precinct and Mrs. Barnes claims that he has evidence that will prove his innocence but can’t as Sacramento County Jail has repeatedly pushed back his court date.

Photo of Jamaine Barnes Sr.

“He’s going through a lot right now, I just wanna get him home so he can be here with his family,” says Mrs. Barnes.

Mrs. Barnes’ husband currently has COVID-19 symptoms. Mrs. Barnes had put in a request for a test and medical attention, which her husband still hasn’t received after 3 weeks. She is worried about her husband’s condition as he is immunocompromised, leaving him vulnerable to the virus.

“There’s a death sentence being in there right now,” Mrs. Barnes explains.

“When does humanity step in? At what point do you treat people like they’re human,” said Emanuel.

Sacramento prison advocates, activists, and organizations have been calling for better protocols and actions taken by Sacramento County to better care for inmates and protect them from illness. They are also calling for the release of more inmates in the jail.

Sacramento advocates are becoming even more concerned with the current outbreak as past actions taken by Sacramento County and the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department have not been proper procedures, or moral, to care for the incarcerated; which could result in a more rapid and dangerous spread of infection this time around. 

As Sacramento county inmates suffer from brutal conditions, the Sacramento County board of supervisors deliberate over 10 million dollars designated for a new “mental health jail” in hopes to “make lasting improvements to the jail system” and reduce recidivism. 

On January 26th, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors ended up voting to postpone the conversation as there was too little information as to the details of the jail. 

Decarcerate Sacramento, a local coalition working to “end jail expansions, decrease jail populations and shift county funds away from policing and incarceration”, is one of the many voices calling against the establishment of this new mental health jail.

In a recent statement made by Decarcerate Sacramento, they argued against the effectiveness of the cities strategy to improve the jail system and how a more “therapeutic” architectural design is not going to solve the root causes of the consent decree and ongoing human rights abuses.”

Pam and Jael are both in strong opposition to the jail, “There’s no new facility that will fix you being human, I wouldn’t even do some of the things they do to an animal” says Pam. “They don’t deserve to start a new jail, it’s gonna be hell up in there, that’s where you’ll see the deaths at,” Jael responded.

In the county’s proposal to open the mental health jail, they mentioned the implementation of social distance measures as one of the preventative strategy’s within the new jail.

“The county’s language about ‘social distancing’ implies that this is the key reason that COVID-19 is out of control in Sacramento County jails currently, when in reality the spread was largely due to the decision-making and behavior of Sheriff’s deputies who work inside the jails- not wearing masks, transferring people who were COVID positive, not providing cleaning and hygiene products, etc.,” said Decarcerate Sacramento in a statement. 

“A new jail is not fixing the problem, a new jail is not telling them they don’t put this inmate in the jail knowing the jail has feces everywhere, knowing the jail is infested with urine, knowing that theres maggots in the food,” said Emanuel.

The question arises of whether or not this new Sacramento County mental health facility will truly improve the jail system and or further expand incarceration in Sacramento. Mrs. Barnes explained how she didn’t believe the jail would actually bring any positive changes to the city and that “they don’t care, this is more about money for them, they don’t care what happens to those inmates, not until somebody dies and they get sued.” 

Many mental health experts and advocates predict that the new jail will further contribute to the trauma stemming from the criminal justice system.

“You come in with no mental illness but you leave out with a hell of a lot,” says Emanuel.

It is unknown whether or not this new jail will be established, but it is evident that many Sacramentians are in strong opposition to the jail as Tuesday’s board meeting had over 87 comments all urging the board to vote no.