COVID-19 & Justice Hot Topics Jail LA County Jail Los Angeles County Sheriff

As Coronavirus Spreads Outside LA’s Jails, LASD Says Program Providers Must Keep Coming to Work

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

Over the past few days, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has eliminated public visiting, reduced arrests, and quarantined dozens of inmates in an effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus through the jail system. Yet the sheriff’s department is also reportedly still requiring organizations offering programs and services inside the jails to come to work as usual, or else jeopardize their contracts with the department.

LA County Probation, which runs the county’s juvenile halls and camps, has shut down contracted education and rehabilitation programs, including things like art and music classes, to reduce the risk to contractors, staff, and inmates.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, too, has shut out volunteers and rehabilitative program providers “until further notice.”

Across the state, K-12 schools have shut down, and most colleges and universities have moved to virtual classes, yet many classes and programs are still in session, and being conducted in-person in LA County jails.

On Monday, the sheriff announced a number of strategies to address the coronavirus risk inside the jails by pausing jail visits, reducing jail churn, and via early release for inmates nearing the end of their sentences. Thanks to these changes, Villanueva said that between February 28, and March 17, the jail population had already dropped from 17,076 to 16,427.

Yet, so far, sheriff’s department officials are taking “minimal precautions” to protect the dozens of contracted workers coming inside the jails, and the incarcerated people and jail staff with whom they come into contact, jail sources tell WitnessLA.

Members of the LASD and contract workers inside the jails have voiced concerns about continuing programming when increased civilian foot traffic in and out of the jails raises the risk of spreading the deadly coronavirus.

In phone meetings over the last couple of days, however, the department has reportedly instructed program facilitators to keep coming in to perform their regular duties. At the same time, sources say, department higher-ups have not yet issued social distancing and hygiene guidelines — or hand sanitizer — for protecting the health and safety of those contractors.

And for those individuals who choose to quarantine or stay home due to their high coronavirus risk status, the department has allowed workers to use their limited paid sick leave to stay home. But when that sick leave runs out, workers will be faced with a tough decision about whether to return to their jobs.

In most other prominent CA counties, sheriffs have made the difficult decision to pulled programming from their jails.

In San Francisco, on March 16, Sheriff Paul Miyamoto suspended programs and services run by community members and organizations, and all events that “compromise safe social distancing” “until further notice.”

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, too, announced that among many other health-focused changes occurring in the jails, all reentry service programs provided by non-SDSD staff had been canceled.

Obviously, the issue is a complicated one. Even temporarily cutting services and programs meant to help people develop important skills for successful reentry is a heavy decision for any corrections official to make. On Wednesday, the Vera Institute of Justice released a list of recommendations for jails and prisons to reduce the risk of coronavirus outbreaks. In that report, Vera urged corrections officials to avoid total lockdown if possible, and keep programs running.

“Avoid use of lockdown as a first response and continue programming, classes, jobs, and recreational activities,” the report said. “This is particularly important for children and young adults. Develop a staffing schedule that allows for the same programming to be offered in smaller groups.”

In a series of Tweets on Wednesday, the LA County Public Defender Union said that while the CDC says that social distancing and “excellent hygienic practices” are the best tools in the fight against coronavirus, “public health experts have said these measures are near impossible for those in carceral facilities…”

With this in mind, the union said it was paramount that judges and sheriff’s officials continue to reduce the number of people who end up in county jails. “For those who are not released, the sheriff must ensure that facilities are as empty and clean as possible.”

In response to WLA’s inquiries regarding continued jail programming, the sheriff’s department pointed to its “Coronavirus Updates” webpage.

As of March 17, there were nine inmates in isolation housing, 21 inmates in quarantine at Men’s Central Jail, and five inmates quarantined in Twin Towers, according to the department site. Dozens of LASD sworn and non-sworn employees had come into contact with the virus and quarantined, as well.

On the coronavirus information page, the department stresses that “ONLY attorney and professional visits will be allowed [within the jails] during this period.” Those professional visits appear to include programming providers.

Additionally, the most recent coronavirus update as of March 17, says “everyone who enters our custody facilities” is having their temperature scanned “to help make sure that someone who is potentially infected does not expose the rest of the population.”

Screening for symptoms is not a fail-safe, as many who contract the virus remain asymptomatic, and even in the cases involving noticeable symptoms, infected individuals are contagious before those symptoms appear. Still, some screening is likely better than no screening at all.

Jail sources told WLA these temperature checks had not yet been implemented, however, as of March 18.


  • Wow! What an informative article. Not!!! Disjointed and lacking in any substantive material to help anyone reach a conclusion. Coronavirus quietly spreading??? How about you read some of the articles your obviously much more “skilled” journalist peers have been putting out there? A lot of noise = not so quiet.

    So, what would you recommend the Sheriff do? Research and a snazzy headline for what? Ms. Taylor apparently didn’t obtain much insight to reach an informed conclusion much less any constructive criticism or alternative to what is already occurring other than temperature screening.

    How about a shout out to the staff and contractors (who help ensure all of the mandates by all of the oversight agencies/feds are being met/followed) too. They are working hard to keep more from getting sick while being exposed to a lot of illnesses, including Coronavirus.

  • Seems like we’re missing something here. One of the biggest problems with the Chinese flu has been the lack of data. The jails seem like the perfect place for experts to observe the virus, with all kinds of controls, things like race, age, and preexisting health issues. Could wind up saving lives.

  • This Taylor can make an article out of anything. Contract workers must come to work! Outrageous!
    Contract workers must stay away! Outrageous violation of inmate rights!

    I do enjoy reading her garbage just to keep up to speed with her white guilt.

  • I’m one of the employees. I’m disappointed in the article because it uses a premise about contract renewal that was a circulating amongst some staff that started as a rumor, a hunch, or the like. This was not something LASD said or even implied. You clearly didn’t spend enough time learning about the nature of some of these programs or the contract. You say nothing to advocate for employees to be paid if they no longer work. Did you know these employees are paid differently than high school? High school is paid while CTE may not if they don’t work. It’s a different funding source. Moreover, some of these programs are very different in size and what they provide. The truth is no one actually asked, broadly, how we all felt. Some do not want to work right now, which is fair. Did you know some wanted to work through this period? How do you think people who attended the programs feel about us not being there? What if some employees were willing to help during this time? Have you been incarcerated before? Do you know what a program allows for even a few people? Are you in complete isolation or do you take the chance to see 1 or 2 people now and then during this time? Have you gone out for groceries amongst others? Maybe some were working with reduced classes. And with a few students, they saw the value in being there for them, just as much as you see value in being there for people around you. But maybe, we can talk about how you don’t see the need for them, as much as you maybe interact with your few friends or family. Im not upset with the article, I’m just disappointed with the lack of depth and what reads like eagerness to put an article out without trying to understand the layers to it. I’m sure “you” know what’s best though, so we don’t need to argue about it. I’m disappointed the guys are far more alone now. And maybe the department believed we brought some value during a tough time for everyone. Politics aside, this was a bit more complicated. That’s all. Hope you stay away from a few people because some of us only had a few people in our classes. Maybe you can interview them and see how they feel about us being there or not. Would be nice to just read more nuance and layers. Whatever.

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