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The Sheriff Vs. The Judge: The Fight Over COVID-19 Conditions in OC's Jails

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Orange County's Theo Lacy jail (l) (Robert Garrova/LAist); Jose Armendariz (r), who is currently incarcerated at Theo Lacy jail. (Courtesy of Johanna Diaz)
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Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes has locked horns with a local judge over how many jail inmates can be safely released to fight the spread of COVID-19.

Barnes said in early January that he had released nearly 1,500 inmates to ease overcrowding, but he's resisting a Dec. 11 order from Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson to come up with a plan to release or transfer about 800 more.

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"Many of these inmates are in pre-trial status for, or have been convicted of, violent crimes," Barnes said in a statement, arguing that their release would put the community at "substantial risk." He said his department was considering its options for an appeal.

Wilson's order came in response to a lawsuit filed last year by the ACLU.

"The conditions in the jails were abysmal," said Corene Kendrick, Deputy Director of the ACLU's National Prison Project.

The suit cites crowded conditions and delays in access to care, among other concerns.

Around the same time that Wilson issued his order, the virus began spreading more rapidly in the OC jails.

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"And then just ... like in the community, over the holidays it just exploded inside the jails. At one point, there [were] almost 1,200 people who were positive," Kendrick said.

So far, two inmates have died.

FEAR MONGERING?

Kendrick said the Sheriff's department has made it clear it doesn't want to make the call on who else to release.

"Judge Wilson revealed ... that the county had brought over 34 boxes of files and just dumped them on the court and said, 'Here you go,'" she said.

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Barnes said he's not alone in not wanting to release more people.

"Almost every city in Orange County has come out in support of myself in trying to stop this mass release of inmates," he said.

Daisy Ramirez, who monitors conditions in OC's jail system for the ACLU of Southern California, maintains that Barnes' argument against releasing more inmates is based on fear mongering.

"I think it's important for people to know that many of the folks that are currently in the Orange County jails have not been tried or convicted of a crime," she said.

'HE GOT THE COVID...THEY DIDN'T GIVE HIM NO MEDICINE'

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, Ramirez said, the ACLU has heard from more than 1,000 people concerned about conditions in the OC jails.

Xochil Villela said her husband is awaiting trial for attempted murder.

"He has been tested, but they never gave them answers," Villela said.

MaryAnne Madriles said her son, Richard Madriles, is awaiting trial on homicide charges.

"He got the COVID and he said they didn't give him no medicine for pain [or] for fever," she said.

Johanna Diaz said her brother, Jose Armendariz, is a type one diabetic with asthma and blood pressure issues who is currently incarcerated at OC's Theo Lacy jail.

"If he were to contact COVID it would be very terrible for his health, so he has to deal with that and the constant stress," Diaz said.

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Jose Armendariz, who is currently held at OC's Theo Lacy jail. (Photo Courtesy Johanna Diaz )

Armendariz has been behind bars since 2007 when he was arrested at age 16. He was tried as an adult and convicted of first degree murder -- even though he wasn't the shooter.

Armendariz has been at Theo Lacy since 2014, as the courts consider whether he should have been tried as an adult.

'IT IS BECAUSE OF YOUR OWN DISOBEDIENT STAFF'

Diaz said her brother tells her that staff members at the facility are not following pandemic protocols.

Armendariz recorded a poem he wrote titled "Humans in Name Only," in which he addresses the recent surge in cases in the jail. In it, he speaks directly to Sheriff Barnes.

"It is because of your own disobedient staff that refused to follow CDC guidelines that this is happening," Armendariz said. "It is because you deliberately house people like myself -- who are COVID negative -- in close quarters with people you are fully aware have tested positive for the virus."

Barnes contends that he has always had a plan in place for mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

"We have strategies in place within our jail for quarantine, isolation, hygiene, masks, cleaning materials that has proven to work," he said.

The number of positive cases in the jails has dropped dramatically since the surge over the holidays.

But the ACLU said the jails are still too crowded, so another surge could be just around the corner.

While Barnes resists the judge's order to come up with a transfer/release plan and contemplates an appeal, the ACLU's Kendrick said this is all taking too long.

"We're trying to emphasize this is an emergency, and we really need to get moving," she said.

The legal standoff over conditions in the OC jails may outlast the wait to get inmates vaccinated against COVID-19. The OC Health Agency is projecting it will begin vaccinations in the jails this month.

Monica Bushman contributed reporting to this story.