LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday authorized the county’s health officer to take the lead in assessing conditions in county jails and issuing orders to protect staffers and inmates amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl co-authored the motion.
“The jails have been an area of great concern since COVID-19 hit us. They are crowded places with thousands of incarcerated individuals and staff in close quarters,” Ridley-Thomas said. “Now that the county has confirmed positive cases connected to the jails among our employees … and at least one inmate, it is more urgent than ever.”
Department of Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer confirmed Monday that one county jail inmate and four county jail workers had tested positive for the coronavirus.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the inmate was at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility but has since been moved to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. Ferrer said she did not know the positions of the jail staffers who have tested positive, but according to The Times, they are a sheriff’s deputy, a custody assistant, a nursing assistant and a doctor.
The board’s vote ratified an executive order signed last week directing the various health departments to work with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and Office of Inspector General to make the assessment and come up with recommendations to both limit new bookings and safely release inmates, when possible.
Kuehl said the county would “do everything possible to protect those who are working within our jail system and those who are inmates.”
Sheriff Alex Villanueva — who joined Tuesday’s meeting via conference call to comment on the board’s move to authorize CEO Sachi Hamai to coordinate the county’s emergency crisis — didn’t provide his perspective on this issue. However, he has already released roughly 1,700 inmates, leaving about 15,000 people behind bars across the system.
The majority of individuals released to date had jail terms remaining of less than 30 days or bail set at less than $50,000.
Kuehl said discussions were underway about releasing everyone with less than six months left to serve in their sentence, but said a balance needed to be struck with public safety concerns.
The board also approved a related motion, co-authored by Supervisor Hilda Solis and Ridley-Thomas, focused on enhancing temperature screening and instituting better hygiene practices for both staff and inmates — as well as adding protections for pregnant women, elderly individuals and those with compromised immune systems.
“To gain an upper hand on this highly contagious virus, we must vigilantly protect those in our custody and make sure our employees who work at these facilities are kept safe and healthy,” Solis said. “Economically disadvantaged communities make up the majority of our incarcerated population, and they are the people who suffer the most from limited access to high-quality health care.”
Solis also made clear that the county’s efforts will extend to young people in juvenile halls and camps.
The Youth Justice Coalition and other advocates are pushing for the courts to allow young people with less than a year left in their detention to be released, along with any minor whose health is compromised.
Solis’ motion also calls for a plan to provide free virtual visits for families to minimize anxiety and keep connections intact.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she wanted to be sure that as individuals are released they have somewhere to go, but said she agreed with the plan to decrease the jail population.
“By starting to depopulate … I know we’re saving lives,” Barger said.