LOS ANGELES – Cases of COVID-19 in the Los Angeles County jail system have spiked by nearly 60% in the span of a week, according to numbers reported Monday by Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
Before sharing that 357 inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus since the outbreak began and nearly 40% of the population is in quarantine to prevent further spread, the sheriff showed video footage of inmates at the North County Correctional Facility passing around and drinking from a hot water dispenser used for ramen and hot drinks.
That footage and other video surveillance “show inmates deliberately intending to infect themselves with the COVID-19 virus,” Villanueva said.
The behavior, which the sheriff said was captured by surveillance cameras in mid-April, took place immediately in advance of a nurse coming to do temperature checks on the inmates and could have also been designed to generate a higher reading, he said.
More than a dozen inmates could be seen standing in close proximity to one another, ignoring social distancing guidelines, as others milled about the common area of the jail module. Other video footage showed inmates sniffing a common mask, Villanueva said.
“As a result of this behavior … 21 inmates tested positive … within a week,” the sheriff told reporters.
The North County Correctional Facility in Castaic had “extremely few cases … then all of a sudden (the numbers) just shot up overnight,” he said.
The new cases surprised authorities at a facility that has limited traffic compared with other county jails.
“It’s sad to think that someone would try to deliberately expose themselves to COVID-19,” Villanueva said.
Inmates mistakenly believed that they could force authorities to release more individuals from custody, according to the sheriff, who told reporters, “That’s not gonna happen.”
More than 5,000 inmates have been released from county jails to slow the spread of the coronavirus, bringing the population down from roughly 17,000 to about 11,700 individuals currently.
“We’ve done everything within our power to … prevent the spread of COVID-19 within our jail system,” Villanueva said.
The sheriff did not give a breakdown by jail facility, but the North County Correctional Facility had 166 reported cases, or nearly half of the total, according to a breakdown provided by the Department of Public Health as of Sunday.
In a separate midday briefing, Dr. Christina Ghaly, who manages Los Angeles County’s hospital system and jail health care, confirmed that the increase in cases is concentrated in the Castaic facility. Ghaly said health care professionals were working with the sheriff to roll out additional testing and protective measures.
“Our Department of Health Services Correctional Health Services is working very closely with the Sheriff’s Department to continue the quarantine and isolation measures that have been put in place there, as well as to encourage inmates to wear their cloth face coverings,” Ghaly said. “We are also in the process of continuing to roll out testing … including for all inmates at the point of entry.”
The spike in positive cases in the jails comes as public health orders are being relaxed in the outside world based on a slowdown in overall cases.
Asked about the jump in just a week’s time, Villanueva pointed out that 117 inmates have recovered and been returned to the general population after twice testing negative. He drew a comparison between a net 240 current cases and earlier numbers, but could not seem to point to a specific reason for the dramatic increase.
He did note that the quarantine numbers fluctuate by as many as 1,000 inmates in a single day as custody officials move to quarantine or isolate anyone who shares a module with someone who tests positive. Villanueva called the quarantine numbers “not exactly indicative of the spread.”
Testing is now being done at booking to further limit the spread in the jails.
One prominent advocate for criminal justice reform accused Villanueva of demonizing people behind bars and pushed for more people to be released.
“He is taking a page right out of Trump’s playbook by gaslighting those who are already vulnerable and in absolute fear,” said Patrice Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and founder of Dignity & Power Now. “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.”
Cullors is one of the plaintiffs in a proposed federal class-action lawsuit filed last month by JusticeLA against the Sheriff’s Department. JusticeLA seeks to require the department to comply with guidelines issued by public health agencies to cut down the spread of COVID-19 in the jails and release inmates who are at high risk for serious illness or death in the event of infection due to age or underlying medical conditions.
In her statement Monday, Cullors also called on the Board of Supervisors to offer universal testing for all prisoners and staff.
The Civilian Oversight Commission, a watchdog group established to oversee the Sheriff’s Department, used its recently approved subpoena power last week to order the sheriff to attend its next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday. The agenda includes a discussion of the department’s efforts to address the virus in the jails.
Among department employees, there are 107 positive cases and 320 deputies and non-sworn personnel have been quarantined. A total of 927 have recovered and returned to duty, according to the sheriff.
Villanueva said it was possible that criminal charges would be pursued against inmates seeking to spread the infection.
Crime outside the jails continues to be down year-over-year, with the exception of homicides, which ticked up 7% as compared with this time last year, according to department data.
Violations of public health orders have resulted in just one new arrest last week, for a total of four, and 65 citations so far.
“You’ve really got to talk yourself into a citation,” the sheriff told reporters, pointing to a change in attitude on the streets. “Now it’s considered rude not to wear a mask.”