Sheriff's Watchdog Commission: LA Jails Need To Do More To Control Spread Of Coronavirus

L.A.'s Twin Tower Correctional Facility (Robert Garrova )

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The L.A. County Sheriff's Department needs to do more to control the spread of coronavirus in the jail population, according to a new report from the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.

The report highlights:

  • insufficient testing protocols
  • inconsistent use of masks
  • lack of cleaning supplies
  • insufficient physical distancing

The report also raises concerns about how testing is conducted. Public defenders said that once an inmate turns down a COVID-19 test during the intake process, they have difficulty getting tested at a later date. In addition, while Correctional Health Services tested more than 10,000 people in custody, it does not test inmates who are about to be released. That "endangers public health," the report argued.

They also made recommendations, saying video arraignments should be used more often to cut back on the amount of times inmates have to appear physically in court. Commissioners also want to make sure that inmates are able to keep in contact with their lawyers.

During today's commission meeting, Commissioner James Harris said

"We really need to continue to emphasize the importance of having a virtual platform by which those who are in custody can in fact have confidential contact with their counsel."

He noted that phone conversations don't afford enough privacy.

The Youth Justice Coalition, which is mentioned in the report, said it has over 200 recorded interviews with inmates and family members who have expressed concerns about conditions within the jails. "We really need like a full hotline for the amount of concerns people are raising," the Coalition's Kim McGill said.

Maria Casillas has a cousin in the L.A. County jail system. She said he has asthma and diabetes. "He created a curtain out of his blanket to make sure that the guys next door to him that were positive did not infect him, because he was negative," Casillas said.

As of Sept. 8, nearly 3,000 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the report. Six inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 have died in custody, although the report notes that it has not been determined whether the virus caused their deaths.

SOME BRIGHT SPOTS

The report also found that the Sheriff's Department is doing some things well as it tries to mitigate the spread of the virus.

It points out that the jail population is down 32% from before the pandemic, a reduction of about 6,000 people. That's thanks in part to a zero bail program and early release for individuals deemed to be medically "high risk."

While the steps to keep the number of inmates down are "laudable," the report expressed concern that the efforts have "stagnated."

Commission Chair Lael Rubin said the panel recently learned that the population in the jail is on the upswing after having dropped to about 12,000. "Many folks believe that even if [the jail population] were to remain at [12,000], considering the physical layout in the jail, that there really is no way of safely protecting so many inmates," Rubin said.

"There was universal agreement that the population is too large to be safely housed," said Commissioner Priscilla Ocen. "Not only does it endanger the people who are being held in L.A. County facilities, it endangers the staff ... and it endangers the community."

The Sybil Brand Commission, which inspects the jails and provided input for the report, "recorded a number of complaints about the medical response to non-COVID related care." In some cases, inmates at Twin Towers Correctional Facility and the Century Regional Detention Facility said requests for medical care for serious conditions were delayed or ignored altogether, the report said.

LOOKING AHEAD

Moving forward, the Commission is urging:

  • A continuing and aggressive reduction of the jail population
  • The provision of adequate supplies for cleaning and personal hygiene
  • Testing for any inmate or staff member who has COVID-19 symptoms or has concerns about exposure
  • Testing of inmates before they're released into the community
  • More video arraignments to reduce movement to and from court

The L.A. County Sheriff's Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.