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L.A. jail inmates say lack of soap and toilet paper heightens coronavirus fear: ‘Like slow torture’

Some L.A. County jail inmates said they don't have adequate cleaning supplies to keep themselves safe.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The thin bar of soap Joseph Clarino said he and other inmates get at Los Angeles County’s Men’s Central Jail is supposed to last three days. Clarino said he’s lucky if it’s enough for one shower — maybe two if cut in half — and that the shortage extends to other supplies. Some inmates, he said, recently used torn bedsheets when toilet paper ran out.

Across the street at Twin Towers Correctional Facility, Richmond Davis said fellow inmates were cleaning with the same mop they’d used days earlier when a toilet overflowed with sewage.

As concerns over the novel coronavirus grow, conditions inside the nation’s largest jail system have raised alarms among civil rights advocates and inmates, who say social distancing is impossible when more than 100 people are crowded into a dorm and some bunks are three feet apart. Inmates, they said, may go days without the cleaning supplies needed to keep themselves safe.

“This is worse than a cruise ship,” Kristopher Howard, an inmate who has been in jail for almost a year and a half, said in a phone interview from Twin Towers. “Everybody’s on top of each other. … I’m scared. I’m scared for what could happen.”

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Men's Central Jail
The Men’s Central Jail.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, inside the sprawling L.A. County jails, which typically house about 17,000 people. But cases have emerged at lockups elsewhere. Men’s Central recently dealt with an outbreak of mumps in some of its dorms that infected 47 inmates and led to vaccinations of 4,500 inmates and staff, underscoring how rapidly infections can spread behind bars and contribute to overwhelming the medical system.

COVID-19 outbreaks at Rikers Island and other jails in New York City infected more than 230 prisoners and staff. In California, inmates have also tested positive in Orange County and in state prisons.

Robert L. Cohen, a physician who is a member of the NYC Board of Correction, said the New York outbreak was exacerbated by a 10-day delay in releasing people early. Over the last four days, authorities have cut the jail population by 400 inmates, down to 4,900, he said, offering a cautionary tale to jail and prison leaders across the nation.

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“Wasting time is going to waste lives, and no one should die in jail who doesn’t have to,” Cohen said.

As of late Friday, 44 L.A. County jail inmates had been isolated and tested because they showed flu-like symptoms or had a fever. Of those, 35 tested negative. In the meantime, hundreds of inmates housed in units with those awaiting test results are also quarantined, part of an effort to prevent a potential outbreak.

Some said it’s only a matter of time.

“I’m anticipating at some point I will get a positive result — and then we have a plan for that,” said Jackie Clark, the county’s correctional health director.

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The Sheriff’s Department did not respond to questions about how many personnel, if any, have tested positive for the virus. The Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs said Saturday that at least one of its members has tested positive, and it expects that number to grow.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva briefs the media at the Hall of Justice about safety precautions the department is taking regarding COVID-19.
(Nick Agro / Los Angeles Times)

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said last week that cleaning crews have “doubled up on all the cleaning protocols” and that an ongoing education campaign is provided in English and Spanish.

“All of the high-traffic areas and surfaces are constantly being sanitized. We have a lot of inmate crews, and they have all the protective gear necessary, and they are scrubbing everywhere they can.”

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He said every inmate has access to soap and running water “at all times, in every single cell,” but some inmates suffering from mental illness may not want to adhere to hygiene standards.

Villanueva’s remarks were at odds with what some inmates told The Times in telephone interviews last week.

Benedek Virag, who was moved from state prison to county jail last fall, said there’s no regular delivery of soap or cleaning supplies.

“Sometimes we get it; sometimes we don’t,” he said from Twin Towers. “It’s a crapshoot with that.”

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Virag, 38, and Howard, his bunkmate, said they first learned of COVID-19 from news accounts. But they said regular newspaper deliveries ended around the time the virus paralyzed life in the U.S., and since then deputies have blocked television news broadcasts.

“We ask almost every day to watch the news, and they never let us,” Howard, 35, said. “We want to see what’s going on.”

“I feel like I’m gonna die in here,” he said.

Instead, Howard said, inmates are shown a video in which a doctor advises them not to touch, hug or kiss, and to wash their hands.

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“Even on a non-virus day, there’s a danger to being in the jail. And now you’re adding the virus in it too?” Virag said.

Men's Central Jail
L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger signed an executive order that clears the way for the Sheriff’s Department to release more inmates from Men’s Central Jail, shown.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

The Sheriff’s Department has taken steps in recent weeks to reduce the jail population, releasing 1,700 inmates. As of Friday, there were fewer than 14,500 inmates in custody.

L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey moved last week to release hundreds more pretrial detainees accused of nonviolent crimes. Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Kathryn Barger, meanwhile, ordered public health officials to examine conditions in the lockups to identify “all necessary and appropriate measures” to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among inmates and staff.

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“The point is that you don’t want disease incubating in the county jail system, and we have an obligation to make sure that that isn’t the case,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who requested the jail assessment. He called reports of inadequate cleaning supplies “unacceptable.”

Ron Kaye, a Pasadena attorney who has sued the Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies over conditions in jails, said L.A. County jails are notorious for low hygiene standards and unhealthy conditions.

“They are essentially sitting ducks,” Kaye said of inmates. “This is not meant to be a death sentence.”

“If the virus erupts in custody, it’s going to spread like wildfire,” he added.

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At the Men’s Central Jail, Steve Kaplan and other inmates said the 9300 dorm — home to 100 or so people — was locked down for more than a week after two people fell ill. No inmates were allowed in or out, which meant no court and no attorney visits. During that time, inmates said, deputies began wearing masks and gloves, but some medical requests were ignored.

Kaplan, 58, said he has severe asthma and made more than a dozen requests for an inhaler. The Sheriff’s Department said Kaplan was given an inhaler on March 4 and again on March 25 after he indicated he had lost it.

Kaplan, who has been in jail on a probation violation since December, when he was arrested on suspicion of trespassing in the lobby of a downtown L.A. hotel, said sleeping is difficult. He said he contends with almost always being cold, with the dorm maintained at about 60 degrees.

“It’s like slow torture, keeping us in these conditions,” Kaplan said. “It’s horrible. … I’m traumatized for 22 hours a day.”

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He is scheduled to be released in late May.

Clarino, 30, said that the dorm’s mop head is broken, there’s no squeegee to clean the restrooms, and only two of six phones work, but there’s nothing with which to wipe them down.

The body odor is so strong that deputies will joke, “Man, it really stinks in that dorm; thank God for the masks,” said Clarino, who was elected by inmates as the 9300 dorm’s “house mouse” to liaise with deputies. When inmates asked for masks, he said, deputies told them to buy them online.

“They almost treat it like everyone in here has the plague,” Clarino said.

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Clarino said he and others are considering standing six feet apart, instead of sitting on their bunks, when deputies come by for head counts, in an act of protest to prove how difficult it is to practice social distancing.

At Twin Towers, Davis, 56, said he also struggles with keeping distance in his pod of 44 people and worries because he has a history of asthma and respiratory infection. He and other inmates typically dilute any cleaning solutions with water to make them last longer.

While Davis was on the phone with a reporter, two 24-ounce bottles of cleaning solution appeared in his pod, he said.

“They must be listening,” he said.


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