The sheriff of Orange County, California, was ordered by a Superior Court judge on Friday to reduce the number of incarcerated people currently housed in the county’s jail system by fifty percent to help curb the spread of COVID-19.
The Los Angeles Times reports, “the move came in response to a lawsuit filed in April by the American Civil Liberties Union against Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, seeking the release of medically vulnerable and disabled inmates as well as necessary measures to protect those remaining in the jails from the coronavirus.”
According to the outlet, Judge Peter Wilson ruled that Barnes had violated the state constitutional rights of individuals in custody deemed more susceptible to contracting and falling ill to the virus, showing “deliberate indifference” to the threat that the contagion poses to older adults or the immunocompromised.
“The uncontested facts found here include that conditions in the jail do not permit proper social distancing, there is no mandatory testing of staff or asymptomatic detainees after intake, and no strictly enforced policy of requiring masks for all staff interaction with inmates,” Judge Wilson concluded.
Sheriff Barnes responded to the directive in a statement, indicating that the department was “evaluating the order, its impacts and our options for appeal.”
Please see my statement below following an order from the court mandating the release of more than 1,800 inmates from the Orange County Jail. pic.twitter.com/Y6PuIKVlPr
— OC Sheriff Don Barnes (@OCSheriffBarnes) December 12, 2020
“If the order stands, it will result in the release of more than 1,800 inmates,” said Barnes. “Many of these inmates are in pre-trial status for, or have been convicted of, violent crimes and will be released back into the community. This order puts our community at substantial risk and does not take into account the impact on the victims of these crimes.”
As the Los Angeles Times reported:
The judge ordered Barnes to reduce the population in all congregated living areas by 50%, including all dormitory and barracks-style housing and multi-person cells. He also instructed Barnes to provide a release plan by Dec. 31 that lists all medically vulnerable inmates, and to identify measures to protect all people in that category who won’t be released or transferred from jail.
He ordered Barnes to maintain the reductions “until the current COVID-19 emergency is declared terminated” and to impose a strict policy for staff members to wear face masks anytime they are within six feet of an inmate.
Before the pandemic began, Orange County’s jail system was the second-largest in California. However, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department told The Daily Wire that she could not confirm whether that is still the case. Sheriff Barnes reduced the jail population by about 45% last spring and was instructed by a court to release even more detainees, including some sex offenders. According to the agency, the average daily jail population count declined to 2,826 on May 11 at the height of the active COVID-19 cases in its system. That number has steadily increased to 3,628, far below its capacity of 6,159.
Of Orange County’s 691 inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 since March, none have died, and only three have been admitted to hospitals for treatment, recent data provided by the department indicates.
Daisy Ramirez, jails conditions and policy coordinator at the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement that “this victory belongs to the incarcerated people who had the courage to speak out about Sheriff Barnes’s failed response to COVID-19.”
“Their resistance and leadership will save lives, as Orange County hospitals are currently nearing capacity,” said Ramirez. “The court’s decision to alleviate the pressure on the jail by depopulating will help prevent the medical infrastructure – in the jail and surrounding community – from being totally overwhelmed.”
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