Motel rooms have become a stopgap measure in fighting the spread of COVID-19 during a housing crisis. Our reporter Lucy Kang follows one man’s story through what it’s like inside Santa Rita Jail during the pandemic – and what it’s like to get out
April 30, 2020 – Darryl Geyer was in Santa Rita Jail when COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic. He says for most of the thirteen months he was there, he was in the Outpatient Housing Unit, or OPHU, which is where people with medical conditions are held. Geyer was there for a bad knee infection. “It’s an extreme dirty jail,” he says. “It’s overcrowded in a sense. There’s a real lack of like cleaning and sanitation.”
He described the conditions as dire even before the pandemic. “Conditions in the infirmary or the OPHU are a hundred times worse than the actual general population… There’s limited access to showers. There was times when I would go a week and a half, two weeks without a shower. You’d have to like beg and beg and beg and ask for a shower.”
“Not one time did they clean my cell.” Geyer says. “I had to use like shampoo or body wash to like clean the floor and the sink,” he says.
“Not one time did they clean my cell. I had to use like shampoo or body wash to like clean the floor and the sink.”
He says he also saw others with medical conditions being left in unsanitary conditions, even when they soiled themselves. Again, he says this before the pandemic struck.
“When inmates first began getting tested positive for COVID-19, and then the suspected cases, they were all housing them back in the OPHU. And so I was housed with all of these other prisoners who either had COVID-19 or were suspected of having COVID-19.”
“They said that I watch too much news when I’d ask them to like, you know, change their gloves before they come and give me my medication.”
Some of the deputies and staff would wear masks, but some wouldn’t, according to Geyer. “Some of them thought that the whole situation was being like blown out of proportion.They said that I watch too much news when I’d ask them to like, you know, change their gloves before they come in and give me my medication.”
“They said that I watch too much news when I’d ask them to like, you know, change their gloves before they come in and give me my medication.”
As of April 29, Santa Rita Jail had 35 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in incarcerated people, and three in staff members. The jail population has dropped by over 800 people since March 1st.
Darryl Geyer says he’s immunocompromised because of his knee infection, so he was worried about getting COVID-19. Geyer spent over two decades incarcerated in various prisons. He says that the conditions in Santa Rita were the worst.
Sergeant Ray Kelly is the Public Information Officer for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which manages Santa Rita Jail. He says the jail is following a Master Outbreak Control Plan to manage the spread of COVID-19 and denies Geyer’s claims about conditions inside.
“None of that’s true, first off,” Kelly told KPFA. “And number two is I have been in the jail every week, constantly in and out of the jail. And I’ve seen the opposite of what your source is saying. We want to be in a safe space just like we want our inmates to be in a safe space. So I don’t want to go in there and work in an environment that, that you’ve described. The environment that you’ve described through your source is one that I have never seen.”
However, Santa Rita Jail has been the target of many complaints over what has been called unsanitary and inhumane conditions.
Attorney Yolanda Huang is representing incarcerated people in several lawsuits, including one filed after last November’s hunger strike at the jail. She’s also been helping Geyer and says what he describes is in line with what she’s heard from others. “That’s been his experience, and that’s what he’s relayed to me over the last nine months that I’ve been in communication with him,” says Huang.
“I understand that they basically only have one person, one medical person staffing it,” says Huang. “There’s no shower. So the only way to shower is if you are escorted out of your cell to wherever that shower is. And if anybody has an infectious disease then everybody’s exposed to it in that (one) shower. So there’s a lot of issues with that. It’s not like in a hospital room where you have a shower in that room.”
“They basically only have one person, one medical person staffing it. And there’s no shower. So the only way to shower is if you are escorted out of your cell to wherever that shower is. And if anybody has an infectious disease then everybody’s exposed to it in that shower.”
Wellpath is the for-profit company contracted to provide medical care in Santa Rita Jail. A recent CNN investigation found that Wellpath had been sued for over 70 deaths in jails and prisons across the country. KPFA reached out to Wellpath but didn’t receive a response by broadcast time.
Under normal circumstances, Geyer would probably still be in Santa Rita Jail. But the Judicial Council of California adopted emergency rules and an emergency bail schedule in response to the pandemic. Which meant that Geyer could be released on bail.
“I was up all night, didn’t get much sleep,” says Geyer remembering the day he got out. “I wanted so badly to get out of there.”
“It was a kind of a surreal day,” Geyer says. He’d previously been arrested at 18, and incarcerated for 23 years. “I felt more excited and relieved getting out this time from that jail than I did after doing 23 years. That tells you how bad that jail was.”
“I felt more excited and relieved getting out this time from that jail than I did after doing 23 years. That tells you how bad that jail was.”
But then, there was the question of where he would go. Attorney Yolanda Huang tried to help him find housing. “I probably spent five hours on the phone trying to find housing for Darryl before he was released,” Huang explains. “I called everybody. I called the jail and I asked them to do a referral. I called my elected representatives. I call the county, I call the city. I called Oakland, I called Berkeley. And I got zero. Zero. The only organization that stepped up was Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.”
Dorsey Nunn is the Executive Director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. He was the one who got Geyer into a motel room near the Oakland Airport. It’s part of a stopgap measure his organization provided for people being released from Santa Rita Jail.
“At the height of it, we had… about 45 people,” Nunn says. “When I checked my messages, my voicemail was full from people asking, can they get referred and get in on some house, or housing, because they also had got out of prison. But I only I had about $50,000 to work with. And that don’t buy that much, when it comes to housing people.”
“My voicemail was full from people asking, can they get referred and get in on some house, or housing, because they also had got out of prison.”
Nunn says the pandemic is exposing the existing failings and lack of support for people getting out of jails and re-entering the community.
“I think that what this pandemic has done so far was showed the shortcomings of, not necessarily investing wholeheartedly into people being refreed. You know, we put all of our investment in incarceration and we don’t have a plan for what we do when we actually need to resource our people coming home. Because 90% of the people going to prison and jails are going to return back to our communities.”
That’s how Darryl Geyer ended up in a motel room where he’s trying to rebuild his life – in the middle of a pandemic and its ensuing economic fallout.
To the question of how he was feeling now in the motel room, having gone through all this, Darryl laughs and replies, “Weird. This is the longest conversation I’ve had in over a year. No, I feel relieved. Nervous. You know, there’s, I have a lot of responsibilities. I have a lot to do to get back on my feet. It’s a little bit overwhelming, but like I said, there’s people there to care, and, and help support me and want to see me do well. I want to see myself do well.”
He says he actually feels lucky to be able to be in a motel room. Even though he’s caught in a sort of limbo, for now.
Lucy Kang is a features reporter at KPFA. Follow her at @ThisIsLucyKang
We are continuing to follow Darryl Geyer’s case and what happens to him after landing in a motel room. Stay tuned for the next installment.
Post has been edited for clarity.