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Criminal Justice

In LA Jail, Health Workers Say Deputies Discourage Vaccinations And Deface COVID-19 Signs

A silver and white L.A. County Sheriff's Department bus in front of the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
Twin Towers Correctional Facility near downtown L.A.
(David McNew
/
Getty Images)
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L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies are flouting COVID-19 regulations and spreading lies about vaccines inside the beleaguered Twin Towers Correctional Facility, according to multiple health care workers tending to some of the most vulnerable and sick incarcerated people. Several complaints about the behavior have been sent to county health and sheriff’s officials, according to material reviewed by LAist.

Update
  • Brian Williams, who heads the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, sent Sheriff Villanueva a letter on Feb. 2, 2022 requesting an "immediate" investigation into the "alarming" reports in this story.

Mental health personnel in the jail, including social workers and other staff, detailed a lawless environment in which unmasked deputies — many of whom said they were unvaccinated — have gone so far as to try to convince incarcerated people with severe mental and physical health issues not to get vaccinated.

Five people who work in Twin Towers spoke to us on the condition they not be named because of fear of retaliation. Some said they were concerned deputies would fail to provide them security if they found out they had spoken with us.

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The Sheriff's Department says it has not received any complaints about deputies' behavior in Twin Towers, it has no information that deputies have discussed vaccines with those held at the jail, and all deputies are required to wear masks.

‘It Is Chaos In There’

“It is chaos in there, and no one will admit that truth,” said one social worker, whom we will refer to as social worker A.

The L.A. County jail system houses more than 5,000 incarcerated people with mental illnesses. Thousands of them reside at Twin Towers, including in the High Observation Mental Health Unit for those with serious mental health issues.

One health care worker said they have witnessed deputies trying to convince unvaccinated incarcerated people with mental illnesses to forgo the vaccine, telling them that it “makes you shed coronavirus,” an allegation that has been repeatedly debunked.

The health care worker also witnessed deputies telling those held in the jail that the vaccines have “dead babies” in them. Lab-grown fetal cell lines derived from cells from a few elective abortions decades ago have been used in the testing or development of COVID-19 vaccines. They’re also used to test many other vaccines and common medications. The Vatican has stated that it is “morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.”

Deputies repeated their remarks about the vaccines to clinical staff with patients within earshot, according to three sources.

Only 56% of L.A.'s sworn deputies are fully vaccinated, significantly less than the 78% of professional staff who have full vaccination status, according to numbers provided by the Sheriff's Department Wednesday.

In L.A. County overall, 78% of residents ages 12 and older are now fully vaccinated. The rates for county health workers are much higher: Some 95% of all county health services employees are vaccinated, including 91% of mental health staff, a county spokesperson said Wednesday. Those working in the jails are included in those numbers.

Defacing Safety Flyers, Posting ‘Let’s Go Brandon’ Signs

According to four Twin Towers staffers, deputies defaced signs posted next to elevators on multiple floors that encouraged “social distancing” so that they read “social dancing,” and put numerous homemade signs on printer paper throughout hallways that said, “#fakenews,” “Let’s Go Brandon,” and other anti-Biden slogans. Jail staff said the altered signs are posted on nearly every floor of the jail.

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Social worker A, who described “chaos” in the facility, also recounted seeing an elevator sign where the recommended occupancy number, four, was crossed out and replaced with “1,000,000.”

Multiple sources said a nurse recently ripped some of the signs down.

A health care worker recalled noticing in December that some homemade signs posted on the second floor linking the two towers mentioned possible class action lawsuits against the vaccine mandate.

All five staffers also said that deputies rarely wear masks — or wear them improperly — when interacting with correctional staff and incarcerated people, including sick patients and those with mental illnesses. Deputies with COVID-19 come in to work, with symptoms such as coughing, and talk about it — even comparing their symptoms with each other — according to four of the sources.

It is chaos in there, and no one will admit that truth.

— Social Worker A

“I feel like the sergeants are not really disciplining them, or doing anything about it, either,” said another person, whom we will refer to as social worker B. That individual said deputies often “have an attitude” about wearing masks.

Social worker B said “on every floor” they often have to ask deputies to give a mask to incarcerated people when deputies bring them out of their cells. ”They’re already sitting down for two, three minutes in front of me [unmasked],” the social worker said.

Radioing Ahead Of The Jail Inspector

Two of the staffers we spoke with said correctional health services management told them to file complaints via email that would be forwarded to the Sheriff’s Department.

We reviewed complaints filed directly to the Sheriff’s Department and correctional health services supervisory staff by health care workers alleging that deputies were unmasked.

We also reviewed documentation of a complaint to L.A. County Public Health that was filed anonymously on Dec. 17 by one staffer. The complaint alleged that fewer than half the deputies were vaccinated (as of October the overall vaccination rate for sworn deputies was about 40%) and were not wearing masks inside the facility. Another staffer said they filed a complaint by phone to Public Health that same day.

A health inspector was dispatched to Twin Towers on Dec. 22. The inspector was escorted through the facility by a masked, high-ranking Sheriff’s Department employee, according to two staff members working that day. Deputies radioed each other throughout the jail, notifying their colleagues which floor the inspector was on so they could don their masks before the inspector arrived, according to the staffers.

Social worker A called it a typical “dog-and-pony show” that happens whenever an oversight agency comes to observe.

The source who made the complaint by phone said the inspector called back afterwards and said the mask mandate seemed to be enforced, and that Public Health was concerned about elevators not working.

Public Health confirmed that it received the two complaints and that it carried out the inspection. It didn’t have anything else to say about the allegations.

The Sheriff's Department Says It Has Received No Complaints

In a statement, the Sheriff’s Department said “there have been no complaints filed” to the staff operating Twin Towers “against deputies in regards to their behavior with COVID-19 regulations.” It said if jail staff have complaints, “it is very important for him or her to realize deputies have supervisors, sergeants, where this behavior could be brought to their attention immediately. Thus, the proper disciplinary actions could be initiated if necessary.”

“Any deputy who test[s] positive for COVID-19 is sent home and not allowed to work inside the facility,” it went on. “Any deputy who feels sick or may have any symptoms of COVID-19 is also sent home.” The statement said signs posted throughout the jail inform deputies to contact a supervisor if they feel sick, and “[t]he supervisor is directed to send that employee home.”

The department said it “has no information Sheriff Department personnel are discussing the vaccination process or the vaccination contents with any incarcerated inmates” at the jail.

In addition, it said “[o]perations staff has walked throughout the entire facility and was unable to find any defaced signs or printer paper with homemade signs.”

The department said “[a]ll personnel at [Twin Towers] are required to wear masks inside the facility, including deputy personnel,” adding that it emails deputies about masks “every day and every shift” and “supervisors are briefing and checking to make sure Sheriff Department personnel are wearing the masks.”

Behavior ‘Unbecoming Of Someone Wearing A Badge’

County Inspector General Max Huntsman — who has repeatedly clashed with Sheriff Alex Villanueva about oversight and accountability — said the jail staff’s allegations “are consistent with the general rise in extremism at [the Sheriff’s Department] that Sheriff Villanueva has promoted with his politicization of the pandemic, including his refusal to enforce mask and vaccine mandates [and] his attacks on oversight.”

Brian Williams, executive director of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, said he and the panel’s members were “absolutely stunned” by the Twin Towers health workers’ stories. “If there are persons in the jail system who are actively encouraging folks not to get vaccinated, that’s completely antithetical to what we as a community want [and] what the county has required,” he said.

The oversight panel is planning to ask Villanueva for more information, and it will work with Huntsman to explore the allegations, Williams said.

County Supervisor Hilda Solis said in a statement that the allegations left her “truly disgusted” with deputies’ “unprofessional and inhumane behavior toward people they are supposed to oversee (emphasis hers).”

Solis also said she’s “deeply disappointed to hear that deputies are perpetuating misinformation” about vaccines, calling such behavior “harmful and honestly unbecoming of someone wearing a badge.”

Supervisor Holly Mitchell called the allegations "appalling." Supervisor Sheila Kuehl issued a statement that said, “[a]ssuming these reports from Correctional Health staff inside the jail are accurate, they are deeply disturbing.”

While declining to comment on the allegations about deputy behavior, a spokesperson for Supervisor Kathryn Barger said her staff is following up with Huntsman to look into the issues raised by the jail health care workers.

Conditions Are ‘Worse Than Ever’

In 2020, prison reform advocates Youth Justice Coalition and Dignity and Power Now along with criminal justice activist Patrisse Cullors and nine incarcerated plaintiffs filed a class-action lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department, claiming it had “failed to respond to the obvious and urgent threats posed by this growing pandemic.”

The lawsuit said incarcerated people were put into crowded, dirty rooms with little ability to keep hands clean with soap and water, and did not have access to the health care necessary to deal with COVID-19.

I feel like the sergeants are not really disciplining them, or doing anything about it.

— Social Worker B, commenting on deputies flouting health and safety protocols.

The parties “remain in settlement negotiations, and [we] are currently awaiting a response to our latest proposals,” said Dan Stormer of the law firm Hadsell, Stormer, Renick & Dai, which is representing the plaintiffs along with the ACLU of Southern California.

“Given the omicron spike, continued complaints from class members about extended quarantines, and the need for effective COVID-19 policies, we think it is critical that a resolution occurs as soon as possible,” Stormer said in a statement.

All five Twin Towers staff members we interviewed echoed some of the suit’s claims, saying people with the most severe mental illnesses in the high observation area are confined to filthy, tiny cement cells, and often lack access to basic hygienic supplies like soap and running water. They said incarcerated patients are allowed minimal clothing and only abrasive “safety blankets” — designed to prevent suicides — for warmth.

“Being in that environment has been worse than ever,” said social worker A.

In its statement, the Sheriff's Department said "High Observation Housing cells are cleaned on a regular basis by inmate workers. These inmates are also allowed to have hygiene supplies and running water." It went on: "[m]any items are restricted from these inmates by medical services and mental health services for the safety of the inmate. The inmate gowns are also issued for the safety of the inmates. Additionally, clothing may be restricted for safety reasons."

No More Working Remotely

For months, correctional health services workers were allowed to telework a few hours a week, according to sources. But that option was taken away on Dec. 15, according to an internal email sent by the health services management team in mid-November that we obtained.

The email stated that there was a “decreased ability to oversee the quality of care” when staff worked remotely. “With the gift of vaccinations and the decline in Covid infection rates, we need to prioritize the quality and timeliness of our care,” the email said.

Our leadership is failing to protect the patients, and failing to protect the staff as well.
— Social Worker A

However, just a few weeks later, L.A. County experienced a large surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations driven by the omicron variant. Correctional health staff at Twin Towers said they are still not allowed to telework, despite the increased risk of infection and deputies’ violations of COVID-19 safety protocols.

Two staffers said correctional health management is yet to provide an explanation for the decision not to reinstate telework during the omicron surge.

“Our leadership is failing to protect the patients, and failing to protect the staff as well,” said social worker A. “It’s so difficult to be in such an infectious environment when people aren't taking this seriously.”

Resistance To Vaccines — And Mandates

There has been significant resistance to vaccination in law enforcement, including in the Sheriff’s Department, even as COVID-19 was the leading cause of death for active-duty law enforcement nationwide in 2021 for the second year in a row.

Of 458 deaths analyzed, 62 were tied to firearms, 48 to vehicle crashes and 301 to COVID-19.

Villanueva has refused to enforce the county’s vaccination mandate, and last November he informed the Board of Supervisors that his department would no longer participate in COVID-19 registering or testing with Fulgent Genetics, the company hired by the county to track employees’ vaccination status.

The sheriff based his action on a claim that Fulgent was collecting genetic data that “will likely be shared with the Republic of China,” an assertion roundly rejected by the county and Fulgent. Last week, Fulgent filed paperwork in L.A. County Superior Court stating it plans to sue Villanueva over his claims regarding China.

The county does not have updated Sheriff’s Department vaccination data because the department is not putting its information in the Fulgent system, a spokesperson told us this week. Because of that, the rates reported in this story came directly from the Sheriff's Department.

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.

Updated January 28, 2022 at 3:05 PM PST
This article was updated to include the reactions from Brian Williams and Holly Mitchell.
Updated January 27, 2022 at 1:45 PM PST
This article was updated to include the reactions from Max Huntsman, Hilda Solis, Sheila Kuehl and Kathryn Barger.
Updated January 27, 2022 at 9:30 AM PST
This article was updated to include the response from the Sheriff's Department.