Ross MacDonald, MD, the chief medical officer for Rikers Island, the main jail facility in the nation’s second-largest jail system, wrote the following on March 18, as part of a string of furious tweets that he addressed to the prosecutors and judges of New York City, pleading with them to slow the stream of people they kept sending to the jail during the COVID-19 crisis:
“We will put ourselves at personal risk and ask little in return.” MacDonald wrote of his public health colleagues, “But we cannot change the fundamental nature of jail. We cannot socially distance dozens of elderly men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom. Think of a cruise ship recklessly boarding more passengers each day.
“A storm is coming…”
NYC has around 5400 people in its jails. And, by Sunday, March 22, a few days after MacDonald’s tweetstorm, 38 people at Rikers and the rest of the NYC jail system had been diagnosed with COVID-19.
On Tuesday morning, March 24, the number was up to 52 people inside the NYC jails who tested positive for coronavirus, along with 30 staff who now showed up positive.
As of Wednesday, March 25, the number of NYC jail residents testing positive for COVID-19 rose to 75, with 37 staff members also testing positive.*
In Los Angeles, more than 17,000 people are locked up within its facilities on most days. And, like Rikers, most of LA’s jail system is an obvious incubator for a viral infection.
So, what will it take to keep LA County’s system from following the scary arc of contagion of NYC’s jails?
Attempts to cut jail numbers
As WLA wrote previously, a little over three weeks ago, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, plus the LA Police Department, and all other law enforcement agencies in the county, began working hard to reduce the number of people in the county’s lock-ups through a variety of means, hoping to lessen the looming “incubator” threat.
First, Sheriff Alex Villanueva ordered the release of anyone from the jails who had less than 30 days left on their sentence. Second, the members of the various law enforcement agencies were told to only arrest those who were a threat to public safety. Also, when possible, deputies and officers were told to “cite and release,” rather than dragging people to jail where too many cannot afford to bail out.
As a result, arrests in the county fell from approximately 300 per week, down to 60 per week.
During that same period, in addition to what law enforcement was doing, the courts were working with the District Attorney’s office, the office of the Public Defender, and the Alternate Public Defender, to explore their own avenues for dropping the jail numbers.
And so it was that by March 20, 2020, the population in LA County’s jail system had been reduced by 1,200 people.
But, despite that dramatic drop, that still leaves around 15,876 people in the jails, a large number of whom are reportedly highly vulnerable.
Thus, it is not surprising that most justice advocates, health experts, and others have pointed out that the existing efforts, while commendable, are not anywhere near enough, especially when a massive health emergency is barrelling toward us.
Furthermore, the dangers of COVID-19 in the jail system are unlikely to be restricted just to the jail facilities. The high rate of daily churn in the county’s jails means the potential exposure of the friends and family of those locked-up or working in the jails every time someone exits Men’s Central Jail, or Twin Towers, or the Central Regional Detention Facility, the county’s main women’s jail, or any other lock-up in the system.
Plus, the speed with which the virus has already begun to spread inside New York’s Rikers Island, makes clear that further action is needed in Los Angeles, with its larger jail population.
In other words, what will it take to keep LA County’s system from following the scary arc of contagion that appears to have NYC’s jails in its grip?
An emergency evaluation
With these concerns in mind, Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl have co-authored an urgent new motion (to be introduced on March 31, but which WLA obtained early) asking LA County’s Health Director, Dr. Barbara Ferrer — or more specifically, the county’s Health Officer, Muntu Davis, MD, MPH — to conduct “an immediate assessment” of the county’s jails for the purpose of identifying any and all additional “necessary and appropriate measures” to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the jails.
In the course of the assessment, the motion asks Dr. Davis, with the aid of the county’s Department of Public Health, to find the best ways to protect those already in the county’s custody and those who work inside the facilities. After that deep-dive examination, Dr. Davis will be asked to issue a series of orders designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the jails, and to generally map out methods to protect the county’s jail staff as well as those in custody.
(Dr. Davis will also do all this in collaboration with the LASD, the Department of Mental Health, the Office of the Inspector General, and others.)
Finally, once Davis and his people have made the needed assessment, and issued the required orders, the motion directs County Counsel to “urgently implement any recommendations or orders of the County Health Officer,” including actions that the sheriff might need to take “pursuant to California Government Code Section 26602, and other applicable laws.”
(Note: Section 26602 says, among other things, that the “sheriff may execute all orders of the local health officer issued for the purpose of preventing the spread of any contagious or communicable disease.”)
Finally, the motion directs the County’s CEO, in coordination with relevant county departments, to “identify any resources necessary to ensure successful implementation of the recommendations.”
Will it be enough?
Realistically, there’s likely no way to keep the virus out of the jails completely.
A storm is coming.
But the supervisors hope that the right combination actions on the part of county officials and others can lessen its damage.
Thus, in an effort to take one more pass at the issue, Supervisors Hilda Solis and Ridley-Thomas have co-authored a second motion containing additional COVID-19-related reforms, this time aimed at both the county’s adult facilities and its youth camps and juvenile halls.
Among the goals of this second motion are to:
- Protect those who are most vulnerable to the virus, including pregnant women and girls, the elderly, and those with underlying health issues.
- Reduce the introduction of new individuals into the jail and juvenile facilities to prevent COVID-19 from entering these facilities.
- Prevent those who are released from the jails, juvenile halls or camps from becoming homeless upon release.
- Ensure effective screening of new admissions and staff entering the facilities and plans to ensure appropriate staffing levels and treatment should individuals become infected.
And there are more where those goals came from.
“I believe these steps will help us better manage this crisis,” wrote Ridley-Thomas of the two motions.
“It’s all hands on deck.”
Photo of Men’s Central Jail dorm with bunk beds, via WitnessLA
Story last updated at 9:23 p.m., March 25, 2020.