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Court orders Orange County sheriff to cut jail population in half to prevent spread of virus

An exterior view of the Orange County Jail
Since last March, at least 691 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus in the Orange County jails.
(Stuart Palley / For The Times)

A Superior Court judge has ordered that the Orange County jail population be cut in half, ruling that the sheriff had failed to reduce the number of inmates to ensure adequate social distancing.

The move came in response to a lawsuit filed in April by the American Civil Liberties Union against Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, seeking the release of medically vulnerable and disabled inmates as well as necessary measures to protect those remaining in the jails from the coronavirus.

Judge Peter Wilson ruled Friday that the sheriff had shown “deliberate indifference” to the serious harm that the virus can pose to medically vulnerable people in custody, violating their state constitutional rights.

“The uncontested facts found here include that conditions in the jail do not permit proper social distancing, there is no mandatory testing of staff or asymptomatic detainees after intake, and no strictly enforced policy of requiring masks for all staff interaction with inmates,” he wrote.

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Barnes said in a statement that the order would result in the release of more than 1,800 inmates, many of whom have been convicted of or are awaiting trial for violent crimes, and that he was evaluating options for appeal.

“This order put our community at substantial risk and does not take into account the impact on the victims of these crimes,” he said.

Since March, at least 691 inmates have tested positive for the virus in the county’s jail system. The ruling came a day after the Orange County Sheriff’s Department announced an outbreak involving 74 inmates, reporting a total of 102 cases of the virus.

“This very unfortunate development confirms the need to take all reasonable steps to ensure that if an outbreak occurs at the Jail, that outbreak is contained to the fullest extent reasonably possible,” Wilson wrote.

The judge ordered Barnes to reduce the population in all congregated living areas by 50%, including all dormitory and barracks-style housing and multi-person cells. He also instructed Barnes to provide a release plan by Dec. 31 that lists all medically vulnerable inmates, and to identify measures to protect all people in that category who won’t be released or transferred from jail.

He ordered Barnes to maintain the reductions “until the current COVID-19 emergency is declared terminated” and to impose a strict policy for staff members to wear face masks anytime they are within six feet of an inmate.

“The court’s decision to alleviate the pressure on the jail by depopulating will help prevent the medical infrastructure — in the jail and in the surrounding community — from becoming totally overwhelmed,” Daisy Ramirez, jail conditions and policy coordinator at the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement. “This order recognizes that we must not forget the humanity of incarcerated people, and they should not be put in mortal danger.”


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