LOS ANGELES – Sheriff Alex Villanueva told a watchdog agency Thursday that inmates in county jails are more safely protected from the coronavirus than members of the general public.
“Overwhelmingly, it’s far more dangerous outside,” Villanueva told the Civilian Oversight Commission. “We’re kind of an island of relatively low infection rates compared with the community at large.”
The sheriff pointed to the county as a model in this regard versus other large-scale jail systems such as New York’s Rikers Island, Chicago’s Cook County jails or the California state prison system.
“We’re an anomaly statistically in comparison to other congregate living facilities,” Villanueva said.
The sheriff and Assistant Sheriff Bruce Chase provided statistics to back up the claim. The jail’s positivity rate is 8.2% vs. 15.3% countywide, according to Chase.
“We did experience a surge in December just as the county did as a whole, but our numbers have already started trending down,” Chase said.
He pointed to a seven-day average as of Tuesday of 3.3% versus the county’s 16.5%. Commissioner Priscilla Ocen challenged those positivity rates, noting that inmates are tested when booked into the system but not again unless they are symptomatic or medically vulnerable.
“If you don’t do either sample testing or universal testing regularly, how do we know how many people actually have COVID in the facilities today?” Ocen asked.
The sheriff noted that only 39 inmates are currently positive with symptoms and another 17 have tested positive despite a lack of symptoms. He questioned whether paying for more widespread testing made sense given the tight control over movement within the jail system. Whenever an inmate displays or complains of symptoms, they are isolated and the person’s housing unit is quarantined in place, according to both Chase and the sheriff. Tests are offered regularly to those deemed to be more medically vulnerable, they said. Inmates are not tested on release, a protocol the board questioned, but Chase pointed out that holding individuals scheduled for release based on a positive test would be a civil rights violation.
One concern is that the jail population has increased because of a moratorium of transfers to state prisons due to concerns about the spread of the virus. Last year, roughly 110,000 inmates were processed through the county system. As of Thursday, 14,885 inmates are in custody, 3,346 are awaiting transfer.
“That’s greater than the size of your average state prison is now camped out in the county jail system because the state prison system has closed its doors to us,” Villanueva said.
The sheriff said his department is actively working with the state to release some of those inmates early, but warned that the jails are at risk of losing defensible space to quarantine and isolate inmates. To date, 12 inmates have died while in custody due either to COVID-19 or complications related to COVID-19, the sheriff said. However, he said he has done everything he can to reduce the sentenced population and the courts have maintained a zero bail schedule so that the number of pretrial inmates has remained at historic lows. When challenged about the growing jail population, the sheriff said the numbers he can control is as low as ever.
“If we eliminate the state prison population in our custody, we would have 11,539 inmates in our custody right now, which would be even lower than our lowest point ever during this pandemic,” Villanueva said.
About 5,870 inmates, or about 40% of the total population, are awaiting trial as of Thursday, according to Chase. Multiple commissioners and members of the public expressed hope that the pretrial population might be reduced further as a result of new policies instituted by District Attorney George Gascon.
The commission also questioned whether more court appearances could be held remotely to further protect the jail population, which Villanueva said would require more funding. Vaccinations of both staff and inmates began Tuesday, starting with individuals in the jails’ health care facilities, according to Chase. Now that availability has been expanded to those 65 and older, that population will likely be targeted next.
“We anticipate rolling out the vaccine to all the individuals in our custody at the same rate that they’re allowed to roll it out in the community at large,” Chase said.
Many members of the public expressed skepticism about Villanueva’s statements, with some accusing him of outright lies. Villanueva had been facing a possible contempt finding for allegedly resisting an earlier subpoena to appear before the Civilian Oversight Commission.
Lawyers for Los Angeles County agreed to drop their petition asking the sheriff to show why he should not be held in contempt based on Villanueva’s agreement to provide 45 minutes of information to the commission. Villanueva spoke and answered questions for roughly an hour before saying he had to move on to another meeting, before public comment began. The sheriff had previously sent Chase in his place to answer questions about the jails during a May 21 COC meeting. Villanueva said that testifying before the commission would be a “public shaming” and he has questioned whether Measure R, which gives the watchdog agency its subpoena power, is legal.
Villanueva’s attorney argued earlier that the commission had already received the information it needed from Chase. She called the subpoena “unclear” and “bizarre” and denied there was a willful violation of the subpoena by the sheriff. The sheriff often relied on Chase, who runs custody operations, to answer the commissioner’s questions Thursday.
The COC itself had called for Villanueva’s resignation, but the exchange Thursday was polite throughout. Commissioner Chair Lael Rubin even offered to help the sheriff seek additional funding from the Board of Supervisors to pay for more remote court appearances, as she encouraged him to return for the COC’s meeting next month.
The Board of Supervisors created the COC in 2016 to improve public transparency and accountability of the LASD by providing opportunities for community engagement.