Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Riverside, California Jails Become Coronavirus Incubator

by Matt Clarke

Jails throughout the nation have become hotspots for coronavirus infection, endangering the lives of prisoners, staff, and the public.

The Riverside County jail system in California reported the death of Sheriff’s Deputy Terrell Young, 52, on April 2, 2020. He drove prisoners, one at a time, from the Cois M. Byrd Detention Center in Murrieta to a hospital for medical treatment and had been symptomatic for about two weeks. Within a day of Young’s death, another deputy, David Werksman, 52, died of COVID-19 complications.

Several prisoners transported by Young and a nurse he encountered later tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

By April 27, the jail system had one of the largest outbreak clusters of COVID-19 in California. On May 11, the Palm Springs Desert Sun reported 185 prisoners had tested positive, 120 had recovered and two had died.

Civil rights advocates tried to persuade the county to take steps to protect the prisoners from the pandemic, to no avail.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco announced his intention to retain all jail prisoners. “I feel very strongly that the inmates we have remaining in custody pose a much greater risk to public safety than the risk this virus poses to them while they are in custody,” said Bianco.

A federal judge found that the jail “failed to demonstrate that it is currently taking adequate precautions” to protect the prisoners and ordered jail officials to submit a plan for achieving physical distancing.

“The sheriff is really, as far as I know, standing alone in refusing to reduce the jail population at all,” said attorney Sara Norman of the Prison Law Office. “L.A., not enough, again, but they are taking steps. Only in Riverside has the sheriff said: Nope.”

Los Angeles County reduced its jail population from over 17,000 to 11,866 by April 27, and reported 71 prisoners and 61 staff had tested positive.

Riverside County is not alone in having a flood of COVID-19 in its jail.

By April 27, the Cook County jail system in Chicago reported over 460 prisoners and 360 staff had tested positive. About half had recovered from the disease, while six prisoners and one guard had succumbed to it. That’s when New York City jails reported 378 confirmed cases and 3 deaths among prisoners.

On May 6, the Harris County jail system in Houston, Texas reported over 600 confirmed cases among prisoners and over 200 among staff. The Harris County Judge had sought to have nonviolent prisoners released without bond to reduce the jail’s population, but her order to do so was opposed by Houston’s police chief and countermanded by Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

The California prison system reported 178 COVID-19-positive prisoners on April 27, while, by May 7, the Texas prison system had nearly 1,400 prisoners and over 500 staff who had tested positive. 25 Texas prisoners had died of COVID-19 complications and another 16 prisoner deaths were awaiting confirmation of COVID-19 via autopsy.

“There’s no such thing as a low-level inmate in our custody. We don’t hold them anyway,” said Bianco. “If you don’t wanna catch this virus while you’re in custody, don’t break the law. ... They’ve chosen this as their home.”

“Who makes him a judge now?” asked Lisa Matus. Her two sons are in the jail awaiting trial. “You’re supposed to house and protect them, and your staff.”

Willie Meadows, 56, fell ill within two days of being “packed like sardines” into a bus and transported between two jails. He tested positive, as did the other men in his 20-bunk pod. Meadows said he was “as close to death as I want to get,” and another prisoner on the pod died.

Bianco refused to release any information on the conditions Meadows described. Instead, he claimed that “the truth is these inmates receive excellent treatment and have greater access to medical more readily than most of you who are not in jail.”


As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login