Commentary: Does LA Sheriff’s Story Add Up about Intentional Infection at Jail?

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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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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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28 thoughts on “Commentary: Does LA Sheriff’s Story Add Up about Intentional Infection at Jail?”

  1. Ron Oertel

    Indeed, during the press conference Sheriff Villanueva said that none of the inmates admitted to trying to infect themselves.

    Well, I guess that’s settled, then.  😉

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      It doesn’t settle it – but it does limit what they actually know. They saw an action on the video, they made a conclusion based on that, but they have little to corroborate that conclusion.

    2. Ron Oertel

      You’re attempting to extend the story beyond that.

      I don’t have a predetermined conclusion, but it doesn’t seem like a good idea to be sharing a water bottle – even if conditions were better at jails/prisons.

      1. Keith Olsen

        The water cup was one thing, but when the inmates were sharing the same face mask it’s obvious to everyone, except maybe David, what their intentions were.

  2. David Greenwald Post author

    I was responding to your point.

    I agree it was not a good idea to do that. However, where were the guards when people were defying social distancing in the common room? And why is the sheriff claiming that the infections were a direct result of these actions, when he has no way of knowing that?

    My view is that the sheriff has overblown this and doesn’t know what they were trying to do and that he is pushing this story because his own handling of the jail is under fire.

    1. Ron Oertel

      That would (also) be “speculation”.

      Jails and prisons are not the best place to be anytime, let alone during a pandemic.  They can’t even protect inmates from each other during “normal” times.

      1. David Greenwald Post author

        Yes – which is the key point that reformers are making – a lot of people who don’t need to be in jail right now, are in harms way.

        1. Ron Oertel

          I’m sure that you’re aware of the controversy regarding that approach, and I’m not planning to debate it.  I’m not an advocate regarding the issue that you’re now bringing up, either way.

          I have some ideas/thoughts regarding how to make the correctional system “better” for inmates and society (and possibly more cost-effective), but that would start to get off-topic.

          But, I think we’re in solid agreement that it’s not a good idea to share a water bottle. I haven’t viewed the video, but I would tend to think that conclusions regarding the reason for it may be premature. (Including your conclusion, regarding the sheriff’s underlying reason for bringing this up.)

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            “I’m sure that you’re aware of the controversy regarding that approach”

            But controversy is a meaningless word. There people unwilling to admit that the current system doesn’t work and that other approaches will work better.

            “But, I think we’re in solid agreement that it’s not a good idea to share a water bottle.”

            But it’s also not the point here. It’s also not a good idea to congregate a group of at least 20 people in a small space without masks on and no apparent supervision. I saw lots of problems in the two minute video that the sheriff posted and tried to hightlight some of those.

          2. David Greenwald Post author

            Just watching a webinar, guy making a point – my problem with the Sheriff’s view is that it was presented in the media as though he were an objective perveyor of fact. He’s not. He has a point of view that he is pushing. And there are holes in his story. My column today’s purpose was to present the other side of the story.

        2. Ron Oertel

          There people unwilling to admit that the current system doesn’t work and that other approaches will work better.

          Regarding “working better”, I believe that you’re primarily focused on the welfare of the inmates, while others are focused on (and concerned-about) the impact on society as a whole, regarding decisions/options.

          It’s not unlike decisions regarding homelessness, in some ways. The same type of advocacy occurs, regarding that.

          Now, if there’s an approach that works better for all, then maybe that’s what will ultimately win-out.

          But again, don’t share a water bottle.

          I don’t know what options the sheriff actually has (given the resources at his disposal), regarding your concerns.

          And again, releasing inmates carries its own set of risks/controversy, of which you’re already aware-of (I assume).

        3. Alan Miller

          It’s not unlike decisions regarding homelessness, in some ways. The same type of advocacy occurs, regarding that.

          Very similar.  I speculate that some of those let of jail for Covid-19 — specifically those with nowhere to go and/or whose families will no longer accept them, are ending up in so-called homeless camps, such as along the railroad tracks in Davis — which could explain the increased size and activity in these camps since the releases began. And since we’ve seen a true lack of social distances (understatement) and masks, and visible meth use — are these released prisoners truly better off?

  3. Ron Oertel

    Now that I think about it a little more, what’s your theory regarding the reason that they were sharing a water bottle?  Thirst?  Lack of water bottles? Lack of awareness of the risk?

    Do inmates normally share water bottles?

    If/when asked about it, what did they say?

    I’m leaning toward the sheriff’s speculation.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      It’s hard to know – my first thought was they were goofing around actually. The problem with the theory of intentionally infecting is that they would have had to know that someone was sick – and no one seems to have known that. The real problem there seems to be the lack of social distancing. And I find it hard to believe that was just a one-time problem.

        1. Ron Oertel

          Thanks.

          At first glance, it does appear that the sheriff’s conclusion makes sense. And definitely, more so than David’s thought regarding “goofing around”.

          It also seems like one of those videos where you have to watch it multiple times, to see everything.

          However, I don’t see how the sheriff’s conclusion would necessarily “conflict” with David’s other concerns/goals, regardless.  It’s not an “either/or” argument. So, I’m not sure why David is presenting it that way.

        2. Keith Olsen

          This goes against the prisoner release because of COVID agenda so when a video like this appears the social justice warriors have to try and deflect it because they know it hurts the cause.

        3. Ron Oertel

          I guess they could also say that things like this wouldn’t happen, if they were set free.

          But then, there’s probably consequences to that.

          Regardless, David isn’t “helping” the cause he’s concerned about, with this particular Vanguard article.

    1. Keith Olsen

      And Texas actually locked up one of its citizens for simply trying to earn a living and feed her kids while letting criminals go free.

      1. Don Shor

        for simply trying to earn a living and feed her kids

        For intentionally violating a health order and potentially endangering the public, her employees, and her kids. She is not a hero.

        1. Alan Miller

          It’s not unlike decisions regarding homelessness, in some ways. The same type of advocacy occurs, regarding that.

          Very similar.  I speculate that some of those let of jail for Covid-19 — specifically those with nowhere to go and/or whose families will no longer accept them, are ending up in so-called homeless camps, such as along the railroad tracks in Davis — which could explain the increased size and activity in these camps since the releases began. And since we’ve seen a true lack of social distances (understatement) and masks, and visible meth use — are these released prisoners truly better off?

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