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May 12, 2020

Wouldn't any effort by inmates to get COVID-19 be a sad commentary on how awful their jail is?

The question in the title of this post was my reaction to this story from the Los Angeles Times headlined "Inmates try to infect selves with coronavirus, sheriff says." Here are excerpts:

The security videos show inmates at the North County Correctional Facility passing around containers of water, taking turns taking swigs, or breathing into a single mask.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Monday that the actions were part of a scheme to get sick that led to a coronavirus outbreak in the jail last month.  Eventually, 30 people in the two modules where the videos were recorded tested positive for the virus and two have since been released, said Asst. Sheriff Bruce Chase.

“It’s sad to think that someone deliberately tried to expose themselves to COVID-19,” Villanueva said. “Somehow there was some mistaken belief among the inmate population that if they tested positive that there was a way to force our hand and somehow release more inmates out of our jail environment — and that’s not gonna happen.”

He said investigators interviewed individuals involved but no one admitted to the scheme. “I think their behavior itself is what convicts them,” Villanueva said.  It’s unclear how the disease entered the two modules where the security videos were taken and whether inmates knew someone was sick when they were captured on video sharing the items....

As of Monday, 357 inmates in L.A. County jails have tested positive for the coronavirus infection.  The number of infections has more than tripled since April 30.  Officials, however, are conducting more testing, including of all new bookings.  Of the inmates who have been infected, 117 have fully recovered.  More than 4,500 inmates are being held in quarantine, meaning they had been housed in a unit or had close contact with someone who either tested positive or is waiting for a result.  Nearly 2,000 of them are housed at the North County jail in Castaic where the videos were taken.

Villanueva has significantly reduced the jail population in response to the pandemic. As of Monday, the jails, which typically house 17,000 people, held 11,723 inmates, according to the Sheriff’s Department.  Some critics contend that L.A. County has not done enough. A recent class-action lawsuit claims that inmates are not being tested even when they show symptoms and lack sufficient space for physical distancing.  The lawsuit claims inmates don’t have enough soap or a safe way to dry their hands.

Patrisse Cullors, an activist whose uncle is a lead plaintiff, said in a statement that Villanueva is unable to protect people in L.A. County jails. She called on him to release more people and on the Board of Supervisors to move to offer COVID-19 testing to all prisoners and staff.  “In an attempt to demonize incarcerated people, he is taking a page right out of Trump’s playbook by gaslighting those who are already vulnerable and in absolute fear,” Cullors said.  “Contrary to the Sheriff’s allegations, what I’ve been hearing from prisoners is that there isn’t enough soap, there is no hot water, that sheriff deputies are taunting folks inside by coughing in their presence, telling them they’re going to die of COVID.”

The Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission voted last week to subpoena Villanueva to appear at its next meeting to discuss his handling of the coronavirus outbreak in the jails. It is the first use of the power approved by voters in March. Inspector General Max Huntsman pointed to The Times’ reporting on one dorm at the Men’s Central Jail where 100 people were housed in bunks that are three feet apart and said he’s received complaints of bottlenecks in testing inmates with symptoms.  He said 43 of the people in that dorm appeared eligible for release.

Whatever the truth of the situation reflected in these videos, I agree that it would be terribly sad that individuals would deliberately try to expose themselves to the serious and potentially deadly coronavirus.  But if they did, it would suggest to me that inmates perceive time spent in the North County jail in Castaic to be even more awful than contracting a serious and potentially deadly disease.  As I see it, Sheriff Alex Villanueva ought to think hard about what this alleged behavior says about the jail he runs and how it is now experienced by those locked within it.

May 12, 2020 at 12:40 PM | Permalink

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