We know that prisons and jails, like nursing homes — and, as it turns out, aircraft carriers, and meatpacking plants — are among the worst amplifiers of infectious diseases such as COVID-19.
We have been told over and over that, absent a vaccine, the most reliable ways to keep COVID-19 from spreading are physical distancing, cleanliness, in the form of good handwashing, and the repeatedly wiping down of “high touch” surfaces with appropriate disinfectants, wearing protective gear such as face masks, and having access to prompt medical attention when needed.
In Los Angeles, Sheriff Alex Villanueva, has been praised for reducing the population of the nation’s largest jail system from a total population of 17,076, less than two months ago on Feb. 28, to 11,883 people the county’s lockups as of April 24, 2020.
Yet, a class-action lawsuit, filed on Friday, together with a petition for a temporary restraining order (TRO), makes an alarmingly persuasive case that this population drop, while a good start, is not anywhere close to enough.
According to the multiple high-powered civil rights attorneys who represent the Youth Justice Coalition, Dignity and Power Now, Patrisse Cullors, and nine inmates named as plaintiffs in this lawsuit, Los Angeles County and the officials responsible for operating the LA County jails have “failed to respond to the obvious and urgent threats posed by this growing pandemic.”
Instead, according to the recently filed complaint, the nearly 12,000 people in the Los Angeles County’s jails (more than 21 percent of whom have been quarantined because of exposure to the virus, as of April 27) are forced, by their presence in the jail system, to live in dangerous conditions that deny them the most basic precautions and protections necessary to mitigate against the risks of a potentially fatal infectious disease — namely COVID-19—to the point that it violates their Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.
Many of those confined inside the jails right now “do not have adequate soap,” disinfectant, or any way to “maintain a distance of at least six feet from one another,” according to the complaint.
Furthermore, according to a series of sworn declarations by jail residents, they have repeatedly found themselves placed into close quarters with people who are coughing and appear ill — without any kind of protection, or ability to appropriately disinfect. Then, when those who worried they’d been exposed began to feel ill themselves, many had to wait days or even weeks to receive medical attention for COVID-19 related symptoms.
Plus, there is nowhere near enough testing, say the plaintiff’s attorneys.
Calling for testing
The sheriff’s department has reported as of Monday, April 27 that, since the start of the pandemic, 71 county jail inmates and 61 Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department employees have tested positive for COVID-19,
But in addition to those 71 people who are known to have had the virus, as of Monday, April 27, a total of 2563 inmates are in quarantine, and an additional 92 inmates are in “isolation,” which is different from quarantine in that, those in isolation are defined by the LASD as “individuals who have a temperature of 100.4 or higher and are exhibiting symptoms of an upper respiratory infection.”
Those in isolation, or who are “under observation,” according to the LASD, have either tested positive or have been tested and health officials are awaiting results.
An outbreak in the county’s jails “already appears to be underway, with the full scope of infection unclear due to limited testing,” wrote the attorneys.
A look at states and counties elsewhere in the U.S., some of which have done wider testing inside jails, prisons, and other congregate facilities, suggests that the LA attorneys have a point.
For instance, in the state of Ohio, when officials found themselves with a growing number of COVID-19 outbreaks in their prison system, at first they did not test widely. More recently, however, Ohio officials decided to find out what kind of numbers they were really dealing with, so ramped up their testing.
“We weren’t always able to pinpoint where all the cases were coming from,” Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction told Reuters regarding the state’s decision to do widespread testing in their lockups. As the virus spread, Chambers-Smith said, Ohio officials decided to mass test individuals in four of the state’s prisons, including its most famous facility, Marion Correctional Institution, which houses 2,500 prisoners.
When the testing at Marion was completed, of those 2,500 who were tested, 2,028 tested positive, with nearly 95 percent displaying zero symptoms.
Once all four prisons were mass tested, a total of nearly 3,300 inmates tested positive for the coronavirus. And, again, most of those who were confirmed to have COVID-19 did not have symptoms, which meant that several thousand infected but non-symptomatic people had weeks of time to unknowingly infect others.
An absence of basic precautions
Back in Los Angeles, the lawsuit reports that even when it comes to the seemingly simplest, “most universally acknowledged safety principles,” such as keeping your hands clean, the LASD has “inexplicably failed to make regular handwashing possible.” For one thing, according to the 84-page complaint, the department has failed to supply many of those inside the jails system with free soap “and other hand hygiene necessities.”
Inside dungeon-like Men’s Central Jail (MCJ), detainees reportedly “have no free access to soap beyond a one-time provision of a small bar of soap,” which is insufficient for routine handwashing and showering.
Some people in the jails have reported they did not get even that one small bar. And, in the case of those or those who have gotten the single bar, once it’s gone, they are required to buy their own soap from the commissary, presuming they have enough money on their books to do so.
And then, according to the complaint, there is the dorm problem.
In MCJ, up to ninety-six people are forced to live in the same open bay dormitory unit where dozens of triple bunk beds are placed between one to three feet apart from each other. Even if residents sleep head to foot, those housed in these dormitories remain less than six feet apart—which is, according to the CDC, not safe.
In addition, some of those individuals with medical conditions are placed in small, cramped medical cells at MCJ with three beds, a toilet, and a sink. Thus, again, it is not possible, even in a medical cell, for those in the cells to be six feet apart from their cellmates in their joint living space.
In general, a high percentage of those in jail or prison fall into a “most vulnerable” category, according to those with expertise in the matter.
“Incarcerated populations have higher rates of underlying illness and, by extension, will have a higher case fatality rate,” said Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes who is the Infectious Diseases Fellowship Program Director, He also supervises the training of medical students, internal medicine residents at the University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Center, in the topic of infectious diseases.
Matters are made worse, said Franco-Paredes, by the fact that “asymptomatic individuals can spread this infection.” As a consequence, he said, with staff traveling between their homes and the facilities, and newly arrested individuals brought in as others are released, “prisons and jails are becoming the epicenter of COVID-19 transmission in the U.S.”
Dan Stormer, who is among the main attorneys who wrote and filed the lawsuit, told us that, in LA’s jails, “at least 25 percent of the population is medically vulnerable.”
Part of the problem, said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a former federal prosecutor, and former executive director of the LA County Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, is that “while Los Angeles County has released slightly over 30 percent of individuals held in jail facilities, that is not “sufficient to reduce the likelihood of a catastrophic outbreak.”
As new infections continue to appear, Krinsky said, “especially in facilities that have a troubling history of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, the responsible and humane thing to do is to immediately release anyone who is elderly and medically vulnerable — absent an individualized showing that the person’s release poses a serious risk to the physical safety of the community.”
A series of sworn declarations by fifteen men and women inside the jails, which WLA has obtained, provide disturbing human details to the overall picture that the lawsuit paints.
For example, there is the account of Catrina Balderrama, a 37-year old woman who is in the county’s main women’s jail, Century Regional Detention Center (CRDF).
On March 16, 2020, Balderrama reported in her declaration, she was transported to court for a hearing at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, which is the county’s main criminal court, located in downtown LA.
After the hearing, once Balderrama had arrived back at CRDF, she said she was placed in a holding cell with a dozen or more other women, one of whom was an “older woman” who was “coughing a lot and having trouble breathing,” she said.
Two days later, Balderrama began to have her own worrisome symptoms.
In the eight-day period between March 18th and March 25th, she said she experienced “a lot of cramping, chills, a fever, extreme sweating, a raw and sore throat, and bad headaches.” Worried she’d acquired the virus, Balderrama said she repeatedly asked to be seen by medical staff via written and verbal requests, but no medical appointment materialized.
On March 25, 2020, she filed a grievance asking to speak to Operation Safe Jails (OSJ) about her need to see a nurse or doctor, after a sergeant suggested that OSJ might help her. But, again, Balderrama never heard back.
Finally, on April 1, 2020, Catrina Balderrama was taken to see nurses at a “mini-clinic,” then to CRDF’s main clinic, where she said she finally was seen by a doctor and a nurse, who took her temperature, which reportedly registered at 103.8 degrees.
She was also tested for COVID-19.
According to Balderrama, she got her test results nine days later, on April 9, 2020 — twenty-two days after she began displaying symptoms.
She had tested positive. In the meantime, it was unknown who else she might have infected.
More troubling accounts
Another inmate, Victor Gutierrez, 22, who reportedly suffers from multiple conditions that make him potentially vulnerable to the virus, including “acute asthma, sclerosis, inflamed spinal discs, and pre-diabetes,” was located at Twin Towers Correctional Institute, where he was a “trustee.”
In his declaration, Gutierrez described multiple situations in which he believed he was exposed to COVID-19, such as the time he was asked to clean the cell of an inmate without proper protection, then learned after the fact that the inmate had just tested positive for the virus, “and had been taken to medical that morning.”
In a subsequent instance, according to Gutierrez, “a male deputy told me that his dad had tested positive for COVID-19 and that he had been with his dad the night before.” According to Guitierrez, the deputy came to work that day without wearing a mask, and “interacted with staff and inmates all day.”
In still another instance, Gutierrez said that an inmate he knew developed a fever of 103, but was “denied a test because he wasn’t coughing.” The man wanted to be tested, said Gutierrez, because “he said his lungs hurt.” But if someone “doesn’t have both a fever and a cough, they are not quarantined away from the rest of us.”
If Gutierrez and Balderrama’s reports are correct, along with the reports of the other thirteen inmates who gave declarations, several things are true. First of all, the LA County Sheriff’s department is not promptly medically isolating all suspected COVID-19 cases and quarantining all close contacts of those who have tested positive. These accounts also suggest that that the LASD often fails to test people who should be tested, for the safety of both inmates and staff.
It is also problematic that such communally used items as the phones that jail residents use, one after the other, to call friends and family, are reportedly not wiped down or otherwise disinfected between uses.
Overall, the complaint and its list of supporting documents suggest that the department is not giving the most fundamental protections to the Californians confined within the walls of its jails during this worldwide crisis.
“We’ve known since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that jails and prisons are ticking timebombs,” said Krinsky. “The question of a deadly and massive outbreak in LA County’s jail system is not a matter of if, but when.”
Attorney Dan Stormer put it another way. “What we’re looking at,” he said, “is an incubator for death.”