Inmates within the Mendocino County jail took a stand this week against COVID-19 quarantine protocols they deemed unnecessary. This resulted in an entire module testing positive for the virus and in various privileges being revoked. We spoke with two inmates within the jail about the protest and with Sheriff Matt Kendall about the inmates’ grievances, their dissent, and the implementation of COVID-19 protocols within a correctional context.
Sean Horn, an inmate in the Mendocino County jail, told us via telephone during the last four days he and the entirety of his unit have been locked into their individual group cells without recreation time nor showers as a result of jail administrators hoping to quell the COVID-19 outbreak within its walls.
Horn explained that per jail policy, anytime an inmate tests positive for COVID-19 they are removed from the module and placed in a quarantine module. Recently, inmates began to express dissatisfaction with this process. He told us multiple inmates asked the administration to let COVID-19 positive inmates stay with the rest of the population and just let the virus “run its course.”
Multiple inmates reportedly chose to “remain in their cells” rather than be relocated to the quarantine module, according to Horn, as a form of protest, and others within the last four days engaged in a 48-hour hunger strike. Participants of both forms of protest have since either left their cells or decided to eat.
With no access to showers, the inmates were provided baby wipes as a means to clean themselves, Horn reported.
Another component of inmates’ four-day lockdown was the revocation of their tablets and phone access, eliminating their ability to contact both loved ones and by one inmate’s account, even their attorney.
We spoke with Austin Neuroth, another inmate, who told us on Tuesday that he requested to call his attorney before a Wednesday court appearance, but was refused. Jail staff reportedly told Neuroth his attorney could see him as a visitor, but that was not possible because the attorney is in Fort Bragg.
Neuroth told us the phone and tablet privileges were revoked after multiple inmates, including himself, contacted family, friends, or attorneys regarding grievances they had with the segregation resulting from the COVID-19 protocols and the resulting 10-day quarantine.
Further north in the Humboldt County jail during December and early January, as the COVID-19 virus spread rapidly among a dorm, inmates concerned with conditions told Redheaded Blackbelt that the jail was not providing adequate protection against the COVID-19 virus. In a way, the concerns that emerged from Humboldt County are the inverse of those that emerged from Mendocino County this week.
Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall told us on Monday, January 24, 2022 inmates were tested for COVID-19, and the staff was concerned because the number of positives was rising.
As a result of this revelation, staff attempted to rehouse the COVID-19 positive inmates to the quarantine module, but those inmates “refused to move.”
Staff, rather than physically force inmates from the module, decided to treat this module as if all occupants are COVID-19 positive establishing an impromptu quarantine module.
These tablets, used by inmates to communicate with their loved ones, were revoked for two reasons. The first reason, according to Sheriff Kendall, was the reality that inmates were “refusing to obey orders.” The other reason was mitigating the risk presented by these handheld tablets of transmitting the virus throughout the entirety of the inmate population. The tablets are stored in a collective charging cabinet with all of the other units used in the facility, Sheriff Kendall explained, and the staff was concerned they could present a medium for the virus to spread.
When this specific module, which houses Horn and Nueroth, refused to comply with the protocol that required COVID-19 positive inmates to relocate, Sheriff Kendall said staff initiated quarantine protocols for the whole section. These protocols include not allowing the use of the shower facilities. Inmates were kept in their group cells of five to six men, refused access to the module’s common area known as the “dayroom” where the showers are located. Unable to shower, staff provided inmates with baby wipes and waterless shampoo, which as Sheriff Kendall described, is recommended by local public health entities.
From Monday till Friday morning, the module was quarantined to their specific group quarters, with four to five men in each cell. These inmates were not allowed access to the dayroom, emulating the exact same protocols used in the jail’s designated quarantine module.
As to the claims voiced by Neuroth he was refused the ability to call his attorney, Sheriff Kendall could not corroborate his account but said that even quarantined inmates can contact their attorneys via video or non-contact, in-person visits.
Some inmates went on a hunger strike for a period of time, Sheriff Kendall confirmed, but said that no inmates remain on the hunger strike.
By Friday all twenty-four inmates within the dissenting module tested positive for COVID-19, Sheriff Kendall said. Once it was established all members tested positive, the entirety of the module was once again allowed access to the “dayroom” and the showers.
Sheriff Kendall did point out that another module in the county jail fully cooperated with the quarantine protocols and did not experience the revocation of their showers, tablets, or use of the “day room.”
Sheriff Kendall pointed towards multiple factors that could have contributed to these inmates refusing to cooperate with the COVID-19 protocols. “These fellows have COVID fatigue like the rest of us,” he said. “They don’t like wearing masks, they don’t like being separated from their friends. It’s something we’re all going through.”
Mendocino County’s Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Coren visited the Mendocino County jail to assess the viability of the facility’s COVID-19 protocols, Sheriff Kendall recalled and approved the jail’s policies
These inmates, Sheriff Kendall opined, “are sharp guys. They knew the virus would spread faster than the 10 days required for quarantine.” By refusing to comply, these men remained together, withstanding hunger, close-quarters a and four days without contact to the outside of the world successfully thwarting the quarantine protocols that threatened to tear them apart.
The experiences of these inmates might have been a consequence of their refusal to comply with the COVID-19 protocols, but their discomfort and dissatisfaction still stand. Austin Neuroth told us he is the nephew of Steve Neuroth, the 55-year-old man that died in the Mendocino County Jail in 2014 while facedown on the floor, hands cuffed, as staff stood aside. The tragedy resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement awarded to Steve’s brother. When Austin spoke with us, he referred to what happened to his uncle and told us the “disregard and negligence is still going on.”