The story made headlines across the country—LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva had a press conference on Monday to present what he claims is video evidence that the inmates plotted to spread COVID-19 in the jail.
In a press release he argued that “through video surveillance, it was determined a group of inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center-North County Correctional Facility deliberately attempted to infect themselves with COVID-19.”
He claims in the video multiple men “were seen sipping from a single bottle of hot water.” The purpose was to raise their temperature and “to spread the potential of infection.
“The bottle and a secondary cup of hot water were passed among the men inside of a day room, which is a common area next to a housing area with beds, akin to the living room of a house or apartment,” the release claims.
Further, “There was plenty of space in which to observe physical distancing, however, the men chose to interact close to each other, making their intentions obvious.”
He argues: “As a direct result of the behavior seen in the video, 21 men tested positive for COVID-19 within a week.”
The sheriff claimed that the men mistakenly believed they would be released if they tested positive.
Since the pandemic, “we had a total of 222 positives inside the jail, 117 inmates recovered and 18 inmates released from custody after testing positive for COVID-19, but prior to meeting CDC standards for being considered fully recovered.”
Nikhil Ramnaney, a Public Defender with the LA County Public Defender’s Office, and the president of the Public Defender’s Union, at an LA Justice Coalition Event was skeptical of the account.
He found the footage “incredibly ambiguous” and pointed out that “by their own admission they had no admission that that was the purpose that that was what was going on.”
Indeed, during the press conference Sheriff Villanueva said that none of the inmates admitted to trying to infect themselves.
“It’s rank speculation by the sheriff,” Ramnaney said.
He said, “The real conversation is why conditions inside LA County Jail are so poor.”
He noted, “It seems very convenient that (this) comes shortly after he’s subpoenaed about the rising infection rate.
“We shouldn’t be distracted by these non-evidence based, anecdotal discussions, we have a massively high infection rate, CDC guidelines not being followed inside of the jail because no one can socially distance or engage in the proper precautions.”
He pointed to the high number of at-risk people in the jail and argued that should be the focus of the conversation “rather than the speculation by Mr. Villanueva.”
Robin Steinberg a former public defender who founded the Bail Project, watched the video and said, “It’s a commercial for the sheriff who is attempting to deflect attention and even made the claim that there was zero cases of COVID-19 before this incident which we all know is (inaccurate).”
She added that “this is exactly the kind of distraction that we see being raised in the media when somebody gets bail and then something bad happens – no one talks about the 9000 people who got released who went home to their families and their families were able to thrive and they went back to their jobs and did better.
“It’s all a mask to get around the question that we all have to grapple with – which is what do you do when people are in jail and there is a deadly disease coming their way,” she said.
She said that the only answer here is “to release people in huge numbers,” because most of these people are in because they cannot afford to pay their bail and, with the disease, “poverty becomes a death sentence.”
The sheriff’s department claims that they did not have a single case of COVID-19 in mid-April. But days later they flagged nine inmates as potentially being sick.
Clearly, someone must have had COVID-19 at that point unbeknownst to them for this to even become an issue.
They pulled video surveillance trying to see if the inmates were socially distancing and using their masks, when they claim to have stumbled on this video. As they were reviewing the video, they found the second video, dated April 26.
They claim, within two weeks, 21 inmates in this case and nine from the mask incident became sick—although they again claim there is no evidence that either the mask or water container came from an infected inmate.
Again, none of the inmates admitted that this was what they were trying to do.
There are a lot of problems with this account, aside from the points made by the public defender.
In the still, you see a large number of inmates gathered in a closely confined space. It doesn’t appear any of them are wearing masks.
The sheriff in their release writes: “There was plenty of space in which to observe physical distancing, however, the men chose to interact close to each other…”
This appears to be a common space, so who is watching these guys and why are they allowing at least 20 people to gather in a relatively small room—even if they theoretically had enough space to interact?
Second, the timeline is questionable. The first incident occurred in mid-April but from that one it appears they had nine infected people. The second one, however, was time stamped on April 26.
That’s only two weeks ago. They have portrayed that as people got infected and got sick, some had moderate symptoms and have recovered—all in a very short period of time for an illness that can take 14 days to show symptoms and months from which to recover.
Further, in the release they state: “As a direct result of the behavior seen in the video, 21 men tested positive for COVID-19 within a week.”
Even forgetting about the timeline, how do the officials know that this as “as a direct result”?
What we do see in the video is that best practices are not being adhered to—the sheriff is blaming this on the inmates rather than the staff and jail practices.
In addition, as the public defender pointed out, last week the civilian oversight panel voted to issue a subpoena to the sheriff about their practices on conditions in the jail.
The subpoena came after he and his department declined the panel’s request to attend a virtual meeting last week.
“I think it’s outrageous that the sheriff isn’t here to answer questions about what’s going on in the jails,” said Commissioner Priscilla Ocen, who suggested that inmates are being housed in conditions that increase their vulnerability to contracting the virus, according to an article in the LA Times.
Think about it—the video shows at least 20 inmates in close proximity to each other with no masks, no social distancing and apparently no supervision from staff to maintain those practices; that would seem to be exactly the sort of problem that the oversight committee was worried about.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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