U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins. (Photo: Jason Doiy/ALM) U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins. (Photo: Jason Doiy/ALM)

Lawyers representing a class of prisoners at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California, on Monday asked federal officials to step up their efforts to reduce crowding at the facility in attempts to limit the spread of COVID-19 among prisoners, staff, and their families. The Alameda County sheriff and local prosecutor’s offices have so far released hundreds of inmates to decrease the in-custody population at Santa Rita from more than 2,600 when local “shelter in place” orders went into effect two weeks ago to 2,149 as of Monday morning.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins of the Northern District of California, who is overseeing a class action addressing mental health treatment at the facility, and counsel for the prisoners, however, said during a hearing Monday morning in the class action case that they weren’t aware of any releases among the roughly 400 to 500 people detained at Santa Rita awaiting trial on federal criminal charges.

“It’s very distressing that not one federal detainee has been released from custody,” said Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld partner Jeffrey Bornstein, one of the lawyers for the prisoner class. “The federal powers that are have not been able to come together” and act as quickly as local officials, he added.

Cousins, perhaps because of the perspective the class action case has given him to the goings-on at the jail, has taken a proactive approach to addressing COVID-19 issues though his criminal docket. As six Bay Area counties were preparing to implement “shelter in place” policies earlier this month to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Cousins issued a new standing order setting up a procedure in cases he’s overseeing to reopen detention hearings “on the basis of the physical and mental condition of the accused,” he said.

”This public health crisis is serious and urgent,” wrote Cousins, noting that general order only applied to his own criminal docket. “Counsel should not delay in evaluating whether any defendant should have his or her detention hearing reopened.”

In the class action case, Cousins  offered his assistance in dealing with the ongoing public health crisis in an order issued March 16. “The purpose of this order is not to distract or criticize efforts that are already underway, but to provide one procedural path toward faster, classwide action amid this global and community crisis,” he wrote.

On Friday, the lawyers in the class action took Cousins up on his offer. Lawyers for the Alameda County sheriff and local public health officials provided updates on current efforts underway at Santa Rita to prevent an outbreak at the jail and the plaintiffs asked for additional measures and information. The judge called Monday’s telephonic hearing on short notice, and the appetite for accurate, up-to-date information about what’s going on at the jail was evident with more than 50 participants dialing in, including local and federal public defenders, and individual lawyers with clients in the jail.

Cousins said Monday that judges were deciding on a “case-by-case” basis whether to release detainees under 18 U.S.C. §3142(i), which gives federal judges the authority to order the subsequent release of a prisoner in cases where it’s “necessary for preparation of the person’s defense or for another compelling reason.” In the Northern District, Cousins’ magistrate colleague, Thomas Hixon, issued an order releasing Peru ex-President Alejandro Toledo, 74, due to heightened risk posed by COVID-19 due to his advanced age. That decision was upheld by U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria over objections from federal prosecutors. Toledo, however, was being held in the Maguire Correctional Facility in San Mateo County rather than Santa Rita.

Speaking on behalf of Alameda County officials Monday, Gregory B. Thomas of Burke, Williams & Sorensen, said that the jail had conducted 17 coronavirus tests of prisoners, with seven coming back negative and 10 awaiting results. Thomas said that while the sheriff would release any inmate it was ordered to release, he didn’t think there was any need to further decrease the jail’s population. Thomas said that it was arguably easier for prison officials to enforce social distancing rules than it would be to ensure that inmates were following the state’s guidelines once released.

“While we release anyone we’re ordered to release, we believe we can do our job,” he said.