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Fight to Shrink California's Incarcerated Population During Pandemic Heads To The Courts

Sheriff's deputies search a man at the San Diego County Jail on April 24, 2020 in San Diego. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
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California's top officials are being ordered to address a lawsuit that demands the state dramatically reduce the population in county jails and juvenile halls at a time when COVID-19 outbreaks are hitting the incarcerated disproportionately hard.

The California Supreme Court has given Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Xavier Becerra until Tuesday to respond to a petition filed Friday by the American Civil Liberties Union.

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The ACLU also on Friday sued state officials to stop the transfer of people in state and county custody to Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the pandemic. ICE has five facilities in California, all but one operated by private prison companies. The state Supreme Court has not yet responded to that petition.

Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel at the ACLU of Southern California, said filing the pair of petitions on the same day was intended to show the scope of the problem: Social distancing is impossible to achieve whether it be at county jails or immigration detention centers.

"People are sleeping in rows of bunks a couple of feet apart, right on top of each other," Eliasberg said. "The numbers of people in those dorms can be 15, 30. It can be up to 85."

Bunk beds at Theo Lacy Facility, a maximum-security jail in Orange. (Disability Rights California)

The governor has started to lower the state's prison numbers with efforts like granting early release for 3,500 inmates, but the ACLU says in its suit that he "has not taken uniform action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in county jails or juvenile facilities."

Eliasberg said removing the most medically-vulnerable from jails would go a long way toward reducing the population, where upwards of 65 percent are awaiting trial and the remainder are serving time for misdemeanors and non-violent, non-sexual felonies.

Another way to lower the jail population, Eliasberg said, is to book fewer people. Officers could "cite and release" individuals, instead of arresting them, he said.

The governor's office did not respond to questions on Sunday about the ACLU's demands. Rather it turned attention onto the federal government and its immigration detention centers. The governor's office provided this statement from spokeswoman Vicky Waters:

"This Administration has been clear on our stance against abuses in immigration detention centers. We call on the Department of Homeland Security to use the administrative discretion it has under federal law to work with public health authorities to implement appropriate actions to protect individuals in its custody, staff and local communities."

Jennifer Pasquarella, who worked on the petition calling for a stop to ICE transfers, said that the onus is on the state to keep people from going into federal custody in the first place. She said transfers from California agencies are the primary source of ICE bookings, rather than community arrests by immigration agents.

The ACLU argues the transfers to ICE custody are voluntary, and only move people from one dangerous setting to the next.

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"The most important thing that the state can do now is to ensure that more people are not put into those death traps," Pasquarella said.

Inmates do a deep cleaning in a cell pod to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the San Diego County Jail on April 24, 2020. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

She said time is running out. An outbreak at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego affecting 57 detainees is the worst in the ICE system.

Throughout the system, detainees have reported difficulty getting medical attention or testing despite showing possible COVID-19 symptoms, and being left to get protective equipment, cleaning supplies or soap on their own.

Pasquarella said that bringing down the number of individuals who are incarcerated is not just for their sake.

"If you allow the virus to spread within jails and detention facilities, then it will spread into the communities and it will continue to spread," Pasquarella said.

Read the ACLU suit calling for a reduction in jail and juvenile center populations here: