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Calif. jail employee on life support as jails continue to confront COVID-19

A custody assistant at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles is breathing with the aid of a ventilator

By Darrell Smith
The Sacramento Bee

LOS ANGELES — A custody assistant at Los Angeles County’s main jail is on life support, the county’s sheriff announced, as the coronavirus continues to take a toll on the nation’s largest county jail system.

“We’re just rooting for him and hoping he can pull through,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said at a news conference Monday streamed on the department’s website.

The sheriff’s staffer at Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles is breathing with the aid of a ventilator and is one of 33 sheriff’s employees who have tested positive for the virus. More than 400 personnel are under quarantine and 230 have returned to duty, Villanueva said.

Jails elsewhere in Southern California are also confronting the coronavirus and the toll it is taking on inmates and corrections personnel. In neighboring counties, including Orange and Riverside, the toll has been especially steep. Two Riverside County deputies have died of COVID-19 and 80 inmates and 55 sheriff’s employees have contracted the disease, The Press-Enterprise reported.

Inmates in San Diego County are increasingly concerned about their safety inside jail facilities there, inmates and their families told the San Diego Union-Tribune in an April 12 story. Inmates, the San Diego report showed, had taken to waving banners made from bedsheets to voice their protests. One read, “We Don’t Deserve 2 Die.”

Thousands of California inmates have been released from custody as efforts to shrink jailed populations along with their potential exposure to county courthouses continue on fears of viral outbreaks in the state’s jails and prisons.

Meantime, state judicial leaders in late last March gave local courts permission to conduct hearings remotely by video during the outbreak and last week approved emergency provisions that temporarily ended cash bail for suspected lower-level offenders starting Monday evening.

A day earlier on Sunday, Los Angeles County public health officials marked 31 new deaths and 323 new cases of novel coronavirus.

The deaths on Sunday marked another milestone: the most people to die of the virus in a single day in Los Angeles County since the beginning of the outbreak, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday.

A total of 9,420 confirmed cases and 320 deaths had been reported as of noon Monday, according to information Tuesday from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Working to create ‘defensible space’

Los Angeles County had worked for weeks to reduce its inmate population to carve out what Villanueva on Monday called “defensible space” – the physical distancing of those in sheriff’s custody that officials hope will keep the virus at bay.

“We’ve done this deliberately, gradually. We’re balancing public safety with having defensible space in the population. We’re doing the right things. It’s not easy,” he said.

By Monday, the county’s jail population had been trimmed by 25 percent, Villanueva said, but 678 inmates were under quarantine, 28 were medically isolated and 11 inmates tested positive for the coronavirus. Two who tested positive have fully recovered and are back in the jail’s general population, the sheriff said.

And in Los Angeles County, Villanueva said 12 of his department’s 23 patrol stations now have the capability to conduct video arraignments to further reduce the numbers of inmates delivered each day to the county’s courts.

Villanueva also said inmates who once needed one negative test for coronavirus before returning to the jail population now must have two negative tests before they are placed back in the general population.

Los Angeles County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia in recent weeks has worked with the sheriff, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and the courts to release some 1,700 county inmates from custody. All are lower-level offenders: a combination of those awaiting trial on misdemeanors or low-level felonies, seniors and those with illnesses or compromised immune systems, and those inmates nearing the end of their time in confinement.

Los Angeles County schools officials last week responded to the health crisis, passing an emergency resolution calling for the immediate release of juveniles detained in the county’s youth halls and camps.

As with adult inmates, nonviolent juvenile offenders, those in custody who have health issues or are at the end of their time in custody would be the ones released.

None of the roughly 600 youths held in the county’s juvenile custody have tested positive for the virus, education officials previously told The Sacramento Bee. Some adults with access to students in custody have, however, and education officials fear the virus could make its way into the juvenile population.


©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

Out of 595 people who were released on $0 bail from April 2020 through June 2021, 420 were re-arrested, with 123 of them arrested for violent crimes
As of Monday morning, 34 of the jail’s 2,864 inmates were COVID-positive
After administrators at the Portland jail revoked her security clearance, the woman was forced to take a pay cut to work at a different jail, according to a lawsuit
The individual was reportedly immediately isolated and contact tracing is underway