Lawsuit Claims LA County Fails to Protect Jail Inmates from Coronavirus

L.A. County Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. (Andrew Cullen for LAist)

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Two civil rights groups filed a lawsuit Friday alleging Los Angeles County and Sheriff Alex Villanueva have failed to adequately protect jail inmates from COVID-19.

The lawsuit describes cramped and unsanitary conditions inside jail dormitories where there's not enough space for inmates to practice social distancing and too few masks and too little soap and other cleaning supplies.

"Prisoners are going to die at an incredible rate unless something is done to address these horrible conditions," said attorney Dan Stormer, who represents the Youth Justice Coalition, Dignity and Power Now, and nine inmates named as plaintiffs in the suit.

The federal civil rights lawsuit says inmates face a "grave risk of harm" unless the sheriff and the county's Correctional Health Services improve inmate safety.


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Since the pandemic began, 44 inmates and 59 sheriff's deputies — most of whom work in the jails — have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the department. Another 1,863 inmates remain in quarantine because they may have come in contact with someone who has the virus.

The lawsuit argues the numbers indicate an outbreak may already be under way.

Among the claims in the lawsuit:

  • Inmates don't have adequate soap and have no way to dry their hands.
  • "High-touch" surfaces shared by dozens of inmates and others are infrequently cleaned.
  • Inmates must wait days or even weeks to receive medical attention for COVID-19 related symptoms.

The Sheriff's Department did not immediately return requests for comment on the suit, which seeks class action status.

The lawsuit claims that in one case, jailers failed to provide soap or clean towels to an inmate confined to a wheelchair. The inmates, DeNeal Young, had to wipe down his shared shower using his foot to wipe the tiles, according to the suit.

In another example, a woman said she was transported to court with another inmate who was coughing. The woman, Catrina Baldarrama, later tested positive for COVID-19, according to the suit. Stormer said it an illustration of how inmates continue to be transported in vans where it's impossible to practice distancing.

'NOT PREPARED TO CONTAIN...THE COMMON COLD'

"What is clear is that L.A. County was not prepared to contain an outbreak of the common cold, let alone a pandemic," added Michael Saavedra, a member of the Youth Justice Coalition.

The lawsuit claims Villanueva has known about his department's alleged failure to protect inmates but has done nothing to correct it.

Villanueva has won praise for dramatically reducing the jail population as the pandemic unfolded. The number of inmates plummeted from 17,076 at the end of February to 12,735 on April 1, according to the department.

Fewer arrests accounted for some of the drop, but the sheriff also decided to release inmates serving time for non-violent offenses who had less than 30 days left on their sentences.

"I applaud the work they have done," said county Inspector General Max Huntsman, who called the release of so many prisoners "an amazing feat."

But the lawsuit claims Villanueava could safely release more inmates - and must do so to meet federal guidelines on safe incarceration practices during the pandemic.

The lawsuit says elderly inmates and those with medical conditions like diabetes, respiratory issues or heart problems should be immediately released - as well as inmates who can't afford their bail.

"These are people they can easily release," Saavedra said.

Villanueva has expressed reservations about releasing any more inmates.

"There's a point we can't go past without putting in danger the community's safety," the sheriff told Fox11 News on April 13.

The lawsuit sees it differently.

"Reducing the size of the jails population is critically important to reduce the risk of transmission of the disease," it states.

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