How lockdowns can upend due process and spread COVID among LA inmates

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In the early days of the pandemic, LA county took emergency actions to help curb the spread of COVID-19 in the criminal justice system. It swiftly cut jail populations, implemented temporary zero bail for misdemeanors and low-level felonies, and closed courts.   

Nearly a year later, a new report from UCLA’s School of Law found that a number of inmates at LA jails endured unnecessarily long stays during the pandemic. Inmates missed court hearings and appearances that could have led to their release or a possible plea deal because of lockdowns in the jails. 

Chris Gelardi reported on this and spoke to Gabriel Lopez, one of the inmates who endured the lockdowns and missed appearances. 

Lopez, who was inside at Men’s Central Jail, says that he missed seven court appearances that could have led to his release much earlier. He says, I did five months in jail, and basically the whole time I was quarantined. And it was just awful because it sucks to be locked down in a room where you can’t move, breathe, or do anything.

The conditions inside did not allow for much social distancing, which made Lopez fearful of catching the virus. He says four people were inside a single cell. “We’re all sleeping kind of on top of each other. … It was just so close. And then we’re all using one toilet, we’re all drinking from one water fountain, we’re all sharing one bowl for cereal.” 

He says he eventually caught COVID-19 from his cell mate and suffered long-lasting symptoms like loss of smell and taste. He was distressed and started thinking, “What is this life worth? Has life really come to this?” 

Lopez is now out on probation. 

But Gelardi says his research shows that Lopez’s experience is a pervasive problem. “I looked at some Sheriff’s Department data, and at one point in June, 49% of the jail population, that’s all the jails, was under quarantine.” 

According to the UCLA School of Law survey, about 64% of respondents said they missed court dates because of COVID-19, and that jumped to 80% for people held pre-trial, meaning people who weren’t convicted yet and would have likely been released if they made a court appearance. 

Gelardi reached out to the LA County Sheriff's Department, which runs the county jails. Their response: “They were not aware this is happening and that this wouldn’t happen under their policies.” 

“It doesn’t seem like they are taking full account of the issue,” Gelardi adds.