Supreme Court rules in favor of OC Sheriff amid concerns over inmate safety

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Across California, inmates are being released from crowded prisons and jails to help protect them from COVID-19. But some activists are calling on jails to step up their cleanliness and safety procedures.

In May, a U.S. District judge ordered Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes to keep jails clean, distribute hand sanitizer, and promote social distancing.. But Barnes fought against requirements, saying safety procedures were already in place. 

The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with Barnes last week.

KCRW talks about the Supreme Court case and the Sheriff’s Department with Gustavo Arellano, features writer for the LA Times Metro desk. 

KCRW: Why is Sheriff Don Barnes opposed to this requirement, and why did the Supreme Court back up Orange County?

Gustavo Arellano: “Because this is Orange County, and this is the Supreme Court in 2020. In Orange County, the jail system and the Sheriff's Department has been plagued with scandal after scandal ... going back almost 15 years. Orange County is still a place where if you're in the prison system, people are not going to have any sympathy for you both outside the jail and within the jail. So something as simple as offering hand sanitizer or trying to make it safe for the prisoners — the Sheriff's Department's going to do the least amount of work possible to do so. And this is what's happening with this case that the ACLU filed against them and now basically got rejected.”

How did this case make it to the Supreme Court? 

“This one went pretty fast. I was also surprised that it went as far as it did. So what happened was in May, you had a U.S. District Court judge who ruled against Don Barnes and said, ‘Okay, you have to keep your inmates six feet apart, you have to have the hand sanitizer.’ So what the County of Orange did was file an emergency appeal with the Supreme Court. 

And also a little bit of background: The people who filed that, of course, is the ACLU. The ACLU has been fighting against Orange County jails for years. A couple years ago, they issued a report saying that the conditions in the Orange County jails were very unsafe, that people were getting sick, that the mental health of a lot of the inmates was not good at all. The sheriff at the time said the ACLU doesn't know what it's talking about. So in this case, there's bad blood between both of them. 

So of course the County of Orange was going to go as far as possible to be able to strike this down. And that's exactly what happened in a 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court.”

The sheriff says social distancing, hand sanitizer, cleaning were already in place. Why was the suit filed in the first place?

“According to the ACLU, they don't believe what Barnes says at all. Again, this is a Sheriff's Department under Barnes that is in the middle of an evidence booking scandal, where his own investigations found that deputies are not properly booking evidence. So the ACLU does not believe anything that Barnes might be saying. 

… Across Orange County, you're seeing an explosion of coronavirus-related cases or inmates infected with COVID-19. And it's interesting because when the ACLU filed the lawsuit, in late April, early May, there was about 100, about 120,130 inmates stricken with COVID-19. Now here we are in early August, the numbers [are] almost going to reach 500. So even though Sheriff Barnes is saying ‘Yeah, we're doing everything possible and we're having a success in clamping down on COVID-19,’ the numbers do not match his rhetoric. 

It's very much like the Board of Supervisors, which forever has been saying that hospitalization rates are going down in Orange County, we flattened the curve. Meanwhile, the numbers kept going up and up and up during the summer.”

The Supreme Court voted 5-4 in its ruling. Did the court majority explain its reasoning?

“Nope. Nothing at all. No statement. But Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg offered a dissent. And I'll just read one little sentence right here, it said, ‘This Court normally does not reward bad behavior, and certainly not with extraordinary equitable relief.’ So they were very upset that their fellow judges sided with the Orange County Sheriff's Department in this case about inmates and COVID.”

Another scandal involving the sheriff’s failure to book evidence in a reliable and timely manner. is rocking the department. The county just opened 15 new criminal investigations of Sheriff’s Department employees, on top of 17 ongoing investigations. What's going on?

“This is a case that goes back to last year, where in their own internal audit, they found that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of sheriff's deputies improperly booking evidence. In this case, it means like they didn't do it on time. In some cases, it was a couple of days. In some cases, it was a month. Some cases, it was over a year. 

Already, the District Attorney's Office has prosecuted two of these cases with criminal charges. So right now, what the Sheriff's Department said is that they're putting these 15 cases or investigations that they did on their own, they're passing it off to the prosecution, to the Orange County District Attorney's Office. 

And in this case, it's up to Todd Spitzer to decide whether he's going to prosecute or not. Spitzer in the past has heavily criticized Barnes for allowing this to happen. But the biggest critic of course, is Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who was the man who broke up the O.C. Sheriff's jailhouse snitch scandal. So he's the one who's saying, ‘While all this happened, it's going to possibly imperil thousands of convictions.’ This is just another black eye in the face of the Orange County Sheriff's Department.”

— Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Kathryn Barnes




Jarrett Hill