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LA Sheriff Villanueva Accuses Jail Inmates of Trying To Infect Themselves With Coronavirus

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A group of inmates at a jail in northern L.A. County intentionally infected themselves with coronavirus in an attempt to be released, according to Sheriff Alex Villanueva. The sheriff, who has faced accusations of failing to properly care for inmates, made the unusual accusation during an online news conference Monday.

To make his case, Villanueva showed videos depicting inmates dressed in jumpsuits inside a dorm drinking from the same hot water container (right before having their temperature taken, according to the department) and sniffing from the same mask. It’s impossible to determine from watching the video if those items are tainted with the virus. But Villanueva said within a week, 21 inmates from the same dorm at the North County Correctional Facility had the virus.

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The sheriff declared the inmates had a “mistaken belief” that the inmates could “force our hand” to release them if they tested positive. “That’s not going to happen.” He said the inmates denied the accusation and that an investigation is ongoing.

Villanueva’s claims are an “attempt to demonize incarcerated people,” said Patrisse Cullors, a plaintiff in a lawsuit claiming the sheriff has failed to provide enough space for social distancing and other safeguards. Lex Steppling of Dignity and Power Now wondered why the video showed a room where social distancing was impossible for inmates.

“The bigger question is, what were they all doing in that room in the first place?” Steppling said.

The sheriff is grappling with a growing number of COVID-19 cases. Infections nearly doubled in the last week to 357. More than a third of the entire jail population – 4,590 inmates – is in quarantine after coming into contact with inmates who tested positive.

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