To offset COVID outbreak in OC jails, judge orders sheriff to cut inmate population by half

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A new coronavirus surge has found its way to the jail population in Orange County. An OC judge is ordering Sheriff Don Barnes to transfer half of all inmates out of group living areas. The ruling came from an ACLU lawsuit that alleged Barnes failed to protect vulnerable inmates by not enacting social distancing measures, and therefore violated their rights under the California Constitution. 

KCRW talks with LA Times columnist Gustavo Arellano about the suit and outbreak. 

KCRW: What is the lawsuit asking for? 

Gustavo Arellano: “The ACLU is saying, ‘Look, the Orange County jail system is a wreck.’ This is actually one of many lawsuits that the ACLU has brought against the Orange County jails over the past five years. But in this particular case, they're saying that there is no social distancing. Sheriff Don Barnes isn’t taking the coronavirus seriously, and as a result you're seeing these continued spreads over the past year [in the jails]. So if Don Barnes is not going to take coronavirus seriously, then what [the ACLU] asked the judge for, and which the judge agreed to, was that [the county would] have to start removing people from the jails, whether that means giving them early release, paroling them, or whatnot [because] they just want to ensure the safety of people at the jails.”

In the ruling last week, the sheriff did not dispute the risk that current jail conditions could lead to an outbreak, right? Inmates are unable to properly socially distance. 

“The jails and ICE detention centers and prisons all across the United States have had horrible outbreaks of coronavirus. But that is not an excuse for what Barnes is doing. What the judge is saying is that [Barnes] doesn't have to release all the inmates, there could be things that they work out, especially with the Orange County jail system. There are different facilities that could work in tandem. For instance, the Santa Ana jail has been basically empty for the past couple of years, so they could work out something with the Santa Ana jail, something with the state government to start [transferring inmates]. 

So there's definitely a workaround with this. And again, Barnes can try harder. He can always try harder, but he'd rather not try harder because for him, people in the jails are criminals, and criminals deserve as little mercy as possible.” 

The ACLU is not saying, ‘All right, just let them out on the streets.’ It's just making the incarcerated population safe, right?

“Yeah, that's all it is. Make them safer, put out more hand sanitizer, or at the very least social distance. And of course, we know that jails have been overcrowded for various reasons. So start under crowding them.”

What do you think Sheriff Barnes is going to do?

“I wouldn't be surprised if he tries to appeal the ruling. He has a very powerful advocate now with Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer. So if they tag team, I could totally see [an appeal] happening.”

OC DA Todd Spitzer is criticizing the ruling. He has a track record of opposing the release of inmates because of the coronavirus. So is this the first lawsuit that's been filed against the sheriff during the pandemic?

“No, the very first lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the Orange County jails happened in late April. At the time, the judge said, ‘Hey, look Sheriff Barnes, you're going to have to start instituting these policies to make it safer.’ Obviously, here we are nine months later and now Barnes is reduced to this. And there have already been inmates released. 

In fact, DA Todd Spitzer says that the people who have been released already, either paroled or released early because of this mandate by judges in the past regarding coronavirus, that they're 40% more likely to commit crimes. 

And look, Spitzer’s whole job is to ensure public safety. So his prosecutors are putting people who they think deserve to be in jail [in jail]. They're prosecuting them, convicting them, or whatnot. So to see some people who these prosecutors know have done bad things out in the public and private, with a bigger recidivism rate, at least according to the district attorney's office, it's almost a mockery of the work that they've done.”

They're saying this is a public safety issue. But again, it could be a transfer, they don’t have to release 50% of the inmates. The ruling is to ensure the inmates’ safety.

“Yeah, absolutely. And DA Spitzer and Sheriff Barnes are both new to their jobs. There's been antagonism in the past between the District Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Department. And so at least in this case, I think what should happen is that they should work with the ACLU … and try to figure something out where you're not going to see more people being released, [and you could] ensure the safety of people in the jails. 

Last I checked, even people in prisons and jails are humans too, and they deserve the dignity of not having to deal with this pandemic.”