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L.A. County Sheriff Says Prisoners Intentionally Tried to Catch Coronavirus to Get Released

by Dale Chappell

After seeing surveillance video of a group of prisoners drinking hot water from the same cup – allegedly attempting to raise their body temperature before it was checked by a nurse – and then sharing sniffs of a face mask, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said at a press conference on May 11, 2020, that prisoners were “deliberately [trying] to expose themselves to COVID-19.”

It’s a story that sounds like it should come plastered with a “Don’t try this at your jail” warning: In that housing unit at North County Correctional Facility in Castaic, 21 prisoners subsequently tested positive for coronavirus – almost 40 percent of the unit’s population. From the end of April 2020, the county jail saw its number of coronavirus cases triple to 357.

“So, in this environment, and then considering the fact that the 21 tested positive out of that module, shows what their intention was,” Sheriff Villanueva said.

While it’s clearly a bad idea to infect yourself with the coronavirus to try to get released from jail, the sheriff made it just as clear that he wasn’t releasing anyone because of a positive coronavirus test.

“Somehow there was some mistaken belief among the inmate population that if they tested positive that there was a way to force our hand and somehow release more inmates out of our jail environment – and that’s not going to happen,” he said.

All of this came after the county announced in March 2020 it was releasing some inmates to cut down on crowding in the jails during the pandemic. It reduced its jail population from 17,000 to 12,000 since the outbreak. As of May 11, 2020, some 4,600 prisoners and detainees remained quarantined, including 2,000 at the Castaic facility where the video was shot. The footage was discovered when staff began looking at whether prisoners were practicing social distancing and wearing their masks.

“Lo and behold, we stumbled across footage that was very troubling to us,” said Bruce Chase, the assistant sheriff in charge of custody.

At the time the video was made, only those exhibiting symptoms – such as a fever – were tested for the coronavirus, which is spread person-to-person and causes COVID-19. Sheriff Villanueva said he’s considering criminal charges for those suspected of trying to intentionally catch the disease.

“I think their behavior is what convicts them,” he said.

“The bigger question is, what were they all doing in that room in the first place?” said Lex Steppling, director of campaigns and finance for Dignity and Power Now, a prisoner support group.

According to Steppling, social distancing would not have been possible in the room pictured in the video. A class-action lawsuit filed against the county in April 2020 accuses the sheriff of failing to provide inmates adequate social distancing measures or testing to fight the spread of the coronavirus. Activist Patrisse Cullors, who is lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, also complained of insufficient hand-washing supplies at county jails and said that Sheriff Villanueva was attempting “to demonize incarcerated people” to explain the explosion of COVID-19 cases.

In May 2020, contact tracing of inmates testing positive for the disease at Wisconsin’s Dane County Jail led officials there to determine that one had intentionally concealed his symptoms, resulting in at least 32 other infections. The jail has recorded a total of 37 positive COVID-19 tests so far, and another 34 prisoners and detainees remain quarantined because they were exposed to someone who tested positive. 



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