COVID-19 & Justice

Searing New Lawsuit Describes LA County’s Jail System During the COVID-19 Crisis As “An Incubator for Death”

Men's Central Jail, via WitnessLA
Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

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.

Vulnerable population

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.”

Catrina’s story

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.”


  • Wait…they dont have safety protection? That’s weird, because we used to find boxes of latex gloves in a lot of cells at MCJ. But they weren’t putting them on their hands, they were putting their dope, kites and other things in them and sticking it up their butts.

    Celeste, you really need to set something up with the department, have them give you a class B uniform and work these jails for a week. It will be an eye opener for you seeing how your little incarcerated Angel’s actually act.

  • You don’t get it:

    1. COVID-19 is deeply contagious, and especially so where people are densely packed together.
    2. There is no cure for it.
    3. There is no vaccine for it; medical people are saying that a vaccine is eighteen months away, and that is breakneck speed in vaccine development.
    4. There is no treatment for it

    When put on a ventilator an anesthesiologist will put the patient to sleep; only about 50% will wake up. In New York 80% didn’t wake up in the worst part of New York’s COVID-19 experience.

  • You will get no tears from me or anyone I know in public safety. The old adage if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime is just as applicable today as it was back in the day KMA368

  • Once again, the Lame Street Media, which is being controlled by the DemonRats, have written an article based on emotions, to tug on the strings of the SJW’s.

    Although this virus (COVID-19) is contagious and has devastating consequences, mostly for seniors, there is no cure at the moment and certain safety precautions have been suggested (i.e., social distancing etc.). Prisons, jails, Juvy Halls were not designed for the aforementioned safety precautions. Nor were they designed to accommodate prisoners with mental conditions. Yet, this is what we have and what we have been dealt.

    The medical staff that are assigned to these facilities are limited and have, at times, a burdensome task to try to administer the basic care to the inmates. Now that the COVID-19 has been introduced, that case load has just increased, dramatically. Coupled with the hypochondriacs as well as those who ” cry wolf” now there exists an overloaded jail medical system. This should have been addressed earlier on. Either by the LASD or the BOS.

    The “dungeon like conditions” at MCJ exist because it is an antiquated facility in dire need of being demolished and a new facility being constructed. Nonetheless, it still serves its purpose for housing the ever increasing amount of criminals, sane and insane. Yet, you (Celeste) make the aforementioned statement to tug at the emotional strings of your SJW crowd to try to depict the jail(s) and the men and women of the LASD as draconian and apathetic. Celeste, did you ever stop and think about the hundreds of men and women who have worked and or are working in these “dungeon like conditions” and the crap they have been and are currently being exposed to, prior to the COVID-19? Have you ever written an article exposing these “dungeon like conditions” and how they affect the workers and not just the inmates? Do you know what the “CJ crud” is? Maybe you can get your “multiple high-powered civil rights attorneys” to press your masters (BOS / DemonRats) to do something about it.

    I do not know the particulars of this case and whether there was a sufficient amount of soap being issued to the inmates. Nor am I defending anybody. What I am stating is that everyone across the U.S.A. was not fully prepared for this pandemic. Further, rather than writing articles, which are being sensationalized as well as being embellished, maybe there should be articles on who, what, where, why and how this pandemic started? This way, people will open their eyes to what is really happening.

  • Debating, arguing, or trying to reason with a liberal, is fruitless. When liberals run out valid points, they resort to name-calling, belittling of the opponent, or threats of violence. It is best to ignore them. I am sure witnessLA has little traffic, mostly deputies driving by to learn the most recent department’s gossip.

    By the way, the virus is the latest hoax, not that the virus does not exist, but when hospitals are closing down because of a lack of patients, that should be a hint…

    Yet, look at how the lame fake news continues to push their crazy liberal ideas…

  • We already know where the Pandemic started: the Wuhan Wet Market, where live animals are sold. Somebody took a live bat home; cooked & ate it; the bat had the germ in it; and the pandemic started.

    However, if you don’t believe that story it is reasonable to believe, many people say, that the Pandemic originated here

    which is located near The Wet Market.

    Yesterday marks a milestone: more Americans died from COVID-19 than died in the Viet-Nam War.

    The Viet-Nam War lasted nineteen years; COVID-19 has been with us for just a few months.

    A Point to Ponder.

  • When you bash Liberals in the Great State of California you bash the majority of residents living here, including the Sheriff of Los Angeles County to begin with.
    Do you still reside in this great state as a hypocrite holed up in a bunker? What a winner!

  • “…Hospitals are closing down because of a lack of patients….”

    True. but the explanation is that patients don’t go to the E.R. , for a heart attack, for example, because they’re afraid of catching COVID-19 there at the hospital.

    So they just die at home.

    THAT is the worrisome issue for the hospitals.

  • Celeste- I am assuming you verified much of this information as fact. What I am confused about is I thought the lawsuit was thrown out. What did I miss?

  • Ronda, where did you hear that from? Did Alex or Viv tell you that? You should know by now you can’t believe a word out of Alex’s mouth. Especially after he reneged on his public proclamation to you that he would reopen Mitrice’s death investigation and get to the bottom of what REALLY happened to her for you.

  • Ronda Ronda Ronda – I bet VV gave you this information. You were probably also given the victim speech of how the devil and haters are out to get “Our Sheriff” add that with “some prayers and GOD TALK” and you bought this bullshit.
    You should stick to your psych BS.

  • Hey Celeste!
    Great job. Drug suspect released from Santa Clarita jail in the morning was rearrested for committing a robbery in the afternoon.

    So your so called “non-violent” offender…
    Great job dipshits at WLa.
    Keep pushing for more of this.

  • Fat Rolman- You are resorting to Trumpisms. You say that “maybe there should be articles on who, what, where, why and how this pandemic started.” Well, that is all there is these days, articles on what, where, why and how- much that is still being sorted out. Pick up the LA Times or the New Times, or just about every major publication. Yet you spend your retirement whining on this site?

    Bastard, are you referring to Fat Rolman and his Trumpisms. And, this virus is the latest hoax? Really? Don’t tell me you are one of those that still doesn’t believe that if you can’t see it it doesn’t exist? How about Jesus Christ? Do you believe in him? Or that the lord created the earth? How about Noah’s ark? That you believe but not in viruses? How about that Obama was born in Kenya, do you believe that? Unbelievable. In the 20th Century in the US we still have this level of ignorance. No wonder the Chinese, and the Russians, and the Indians, and the Koreans, and the Japanese, and we can go on, are kicking our ass in just about any category. And, after this fiasco, our ranking in the world will go down and on the way down the world will be laughing.

    LOL. Wow, “dipshits?” My money is on Celeste on the IQ test, or even checkers, or even coloring. I’m not sure you should be calling anyone dipshit, except some of your fellow officers. And, does it surprise you that someone committed a robbery? How about the officers that rape, steal and murder. Should that not be more troubling. Or, how about those that claim to be disabled while frolicking on the beach, if you can call it that given how obese they tend to be, and double dipping at the government trough.

    Celeste, I would love to hear how stupid you think some of your readers are. Please share. You can include me in your list, if you wish. And, when you were starting this site did you ever think some of your greatest fans would be the same rednecks you would write about? Please share.

  • Hey gj, I don’t think Celeste will join you in sneering at and mocking Christians, poor people, poor white people, the entire population of the southern United States, everyone in law enforcement, or anyone else you deem beneath your social status. You may want to examine why you have so much pent up hostility. (The law enforcement part is easy, seeing how you were rejected from the full time ranks)

    Btw did the local cops ever buy your “run off the road during a road rage incident?”

  • Does anyone know where we can get help for an inmate in la county jail ? Durning the covid 19 the deputy’s won’t let my husband make a call ,his showering from his sink because the deputy’s , still have not gotten mask nore sanitizer ???

  • One of the ACLUs goals with lawsuits like these is equal protection under the law. Over 300 deaths have occurred in nursing homes from Covid 19. None have occurred in the LA County Jail System. The elderly do not seem to be a group in need of equal protections by the ACLU. Nor does it seem to have been a priority of the Governor, BOS or LA County Public Health. They got their priorities wrong and no one calls them out.

  • Sounds like jail is a tough place.
    Help is easy. Start with making good decisions and avoid illegal activity. Not being in jail is the best help. Hope this helps.

  • LA Times? Major publication!
    Not only a racist but you’ve finally written something funny after all those attempts! Congrats!

  • LASD’s website says this

    “For general custody-related questions and help with inmate location telephone


    Good luck!!!

  • Seeking the Truth….it is clearly is not the goal of this site, ACLU, far left politicians or other liberal/progressive group to look out for the elderly. Evidently not only have their families “written them off” but the “so called social justice warriors” have lent a deaf ear. All this site and other like minded “ anarchist-socialist” want is to file lawsuits, win journalism awards and garner media attention as they cash their big fat checks. They aren’t about “fighting the good fight for a worthy cause”, they are nothing more then the “modern day ambulance chasers”…….basically all leaches just trying to capitalize and profit under the guise of “helping the underserved”.

    At the end of the day, just another side of the same coin trying to run a hustle and profit off the backs of the uninformed masses.

    Someone should should discipline that “CF”, such ridiculous and childish comments. How old is he/she….6 years old?

  • Madame Kong – I am hurt. You know who I am and yet you fail to introduce yourself. I’m beginning to think you are afraid of me. Who knows, we might end up being friends. Say Hi next time.

    Fat Rolman – As usual, you know enough to get in trouble or to impress the Fox yokels. You are one those that will refer to that one nut with a PhD that believes in creationism to dispute evolution. What you link is a summary presented in the best light, and may all be true and correct and still does not provide answers. Shows promise on primates… Ok. Promising with small sample…. OK. needs further study… We do not have a cure, a vaccine, or a treatment. That is why people are still dying. Some things warrant further study, maybe clinical study with human subjects, etc., but we are no there. You may be impressive with the Fox folks but brother stick to that crowd.

    LOL, I am interested to learn more about your reading habits. Please share you get your news.

    Rakkasan – Thank you for sharing. I am familiar with that case. Funny how my uniformed brethren did not bitch about that case. Aside from perhaps not being able to read the decision, they probably did not want to open it up to smarter folks. They will lose their jobs to Asians, and then sue because they claim some black man took their job. And, I do not know Celeste, contrary to Madame Kong’s delusions, but I can only imagine. I would love to hear her thoughts, though.

    Seeking the Truth and HMM – Gentlemen, stick to writing tickets. The equal protection clause applies to government action, not private actors. Is Mr. Fat Rolman your mentor? And, many a people sue nursing homes. Attorney’s do it all of the time, and will file a shitload of suits before this thing is over, so those people will have representation.

  • Gj obviously you don’t know Celeste, or you would have never invited her to join in on one of your nasty little rants. Good to see you behaving yourself a little, remember to be civil while commenting on this cite.

    You never did tell us, how’s that single car crash thing you were involved in work out?

  • I believe half of what I see and nothing of what I hear. Unlike brain dead liberals and conservatives I click through multiple sources of information and try to make a reasonable assessment based on facts not emotion or opinion of others. The problem with the LA Times is they let their slanted opinion drive their reporting of facts. As a solo source of information they are shit.

  • Started in the “wet market” but how? Release of an infected lab animal, pretty obvious to anyone with no agenda an investigative skills, but the Left just doesn’t care. It’s all about blaming Trump.

  • LOL, again, so what do you read?

    Fife, glad you are on the case. Please warn everyone about the dangers of eating Chinese food.

    Madame Kong, my mere invitation brought, I am sure, thoughts about how Celeste feels about some of the fine uniformed specimen on this site. Regarding the car crash, I’d be happy to share with you. Look me up sometime and do not be afraid.

  • The information is out there, do your own research if you’re limited like it sounds. Having a Chinese meal and eating tainted food on the Wet Market are comparable? What type of moronic comment will you follow with in an attempt to twist what someone puts up? You rooting for China after what they did to the world? Why?

  • Well I guess that settles that, no thanks on the invite, your butt kissing law enforcement wanna be profile, coupled with your cop hating alter ego is tedious, needy, and a bit creepy. Too many years of not being allowed into the real club has left you a broken man.

  • So what of those inmates that stand accused? Do you think it’s fair that they are being denied due process of law? A lot of inmates are being prosecuted by the DA’s unjustly solely to excel their careers. Let’s be real…

  • No embellishment here. My brother is awaiting to be sentenced. Its a jail, not a prison and many are awaiting trial. NO SOAP is correct, no sheets, no mattress pad and has slept on metal cot for 5 days. I have contacted the ACLU and their Tittle 15 minimum requirements are not being met. They are treated worse that animals. The toilet has now gone over 72 hrs in a 4 man cell not fixed and they have to beg a guard to take them to a working toilet and they are laughed at and told sorry you have to go but bend over and cough – assuming drugs. Dungeon is an understatement

  • I need help.I have a love one who is MCJ.He said is really bad in there it looks like skid row.this is not good.does anyone know who I can talk too please!

Leave a Comment