My View: Media Botches LA Jail Story

Early this week, the media reported on a strange case where the LA Sheriff, Alex Villanueva, citing video evidence, alleged that inmates at the Los Angeles jail were intentionally infecting themselves with COVID-19.

As we noted in the commentary that appeared on Wednesday, the sheriff apparently did not corroborate the case with any admissions from the participants in the video.

Moreover, he vastly overstated the evidence, stating, “As a direct result of the behavior seen in the video, 21 men tested positive for COVID-19 within a week.”

He also claimed that the men mistakenly believed they would be released if they tested positive—even though there were no acknowledgments by the inmates and therefore it would be hard to discern what their intention was and whether they had such a belief.

One of the more interesting facets of the Los Angeles jail story is the lack of critical coverage by the media—most of which simply picked up the LA Sheriff’s press release and/or press conference and covered it uncritically without any counterweight.

Media accounts, for instance, failed to note that the videos show two instances where inmates at the very least were gathered in close proximity.  The sheriff overstated his evidence, claiming a direct link between their actions and their infections, and one of the things we ought to ask is whether these are the only two instances where the inmates were in that common area without masks or social distancing.

If that was a regular practice then perhaps it would not be surprising if a large number of people contracted the virus.

Nor did the media point out that Sheriff Villanueva was under heavy criticism for failing to take appropriate steps to protect the jail from a COVID outbreak and that the video thoroughly
demonstrates that.

Even if you buy the cover story by the sheriff, where are the guards enforcing social distancing in the common area?

On a webinar Thursday that focused on media coverage during COVID-19, an LA Times reporter, Robert Greene, pointed out that on Monday the sheriff released video that purported to show that there were inmates who were infecting themselves in order to win early release.

“Unfortunately a lot of news outlets took what the sheriff said and ran with it,” he said. “You’ll see a lot of reports that take the sheriff’s assertion on face value. There was a scheme to infect themselves, purpose of that scheme was to get release from jail or to join in a lawsuit.

“These are all assertions from the sheriff—none of them have been verified independently,” he said.

He pointed out, “If you look at the video yourself—and I encourage you to do that—it seems to me what you will find is not necessarily proof of a scheme of inmates to infect themselves, what you’ll find is the sheriff’s utter inability to have social distancing in jail.”

Even though he said that “the sheriff has reduced the number of jail inmates by something like 9000, nevertheless, they’re still housed in dorm areas or common areas where a person is not able to socially distance himself or herself from others.”

The sudden rise in COVID-19 in the jail, he surmised, “has at least as much to do with the practices in the jail as it does with some purported scheme.”

The sheriff said “until that point he was successful at keeping COVID-19 out of the jail.”  He said, “Think about it, how can a bunch of inmates infect each other by circulating an infected cup that an infected person drank from if there were no infections there in the first place?”

He found that the video shows something really astounding, “that there really is no social distancing in the jail despite the reduction in the number of inmates.”

Law Professor John Pfaff pointed out something else important: “When they put out these articles, they quote law enforcement as objective relayers of facts on the ground.”

He argued, “Law enforcement is not an objective stater of facts. They are a politically invested interest group that’s found their traditional approach to law enforcement under sustained attack and they are pushing back relentlessly.”

Furthermore, the incident in question—even if we accept the sheriff’s account—only accounts for around 30 inmates testing positive for COVID.

That does not exonerate the sheriff when he acknowledged that “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.”

One discussion last week suggested the number of inmates in quarantine is at least 4500.  So even if the sheriff is right about the video evidence, it does not explain the rise of COVID in his jail nor explain away his failure to enforce proper protocol.

What the video shows is open for interpretation.  Nor do we have an account from the inmates as to what their intent was.  What we do see—a bigger and more widespread problem—is the lack of social distancing and my guess is that it was not a one- or two-off situation.  That it was a regular occurrence.  Given that, perhaps that is the real culprit as to the spread of COVID in the LA jail.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

To sign up for our new newsletter – Everyday Injustice –

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for

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.

Related posts


  1. Tia Will

    The sheriff said “until that point he was successful at keeping COVID-19 out of the jail.”

    The sheriff’s point is demonstrably inaccurate on a number of counts:

    1. The inmates obviously could not “deliberately” pass from one to another a virus that was not already there. His assertion does not hold on that one point alone. However, there is much more just in this one shot.

    2. The picture shows a number of hazards that are not contingent on inmate intent. Where are the masks? The hand sanitation stations? The markings on the floor designating appropriate spacing? The limitation of inmate numbers in a small enclosed space? The colorful posters we used in the polling places indicating preventive measures to be used?  True that the inmates are too close together. Also true that custody appears to be making no effort to provide adequate social distancing or other safety measures. Does that mean that custody is deliberately infecting inmates?

    If we applied the sheriff’s logic, that would be the obvious conclusion.

    1. David Greenwald

      Your reaction is similar to mine. The Sheriff basically said they were looking at the video to see if people were social distancing and they saw this. But that leads to the question – who is watching this and how could they not know that people weren’t social distancing and how many other times did this occur. But the media didn’t even ask those questions of the Sheriff.

      1. Ron Oertel

        According to the article below, they were reviewing the videos as part of an investigation.

        The thought that enforcement of social distancing would be effective (and the responsibility of authorities) if inmates are purposefully infecting themselves is something that I don’t understand. 

        Maybe David can explain the logic behind that thought.

        However, the article below does state this (without expanding upon it).

        She said she reviewed footage from dorms where hardly any inmates were wearing masks and instructed the nursing staff to advise prisoners to wear the coverings around the clock, even to sleep. 

        1. David Greenwald

          I don’t know that we know they were.

          But clearly putting a large group in a common area is problematic and that is on the jail officials and the lack of monitoring is as well.

        2. Ron Oertel

          I believe that you are in a clear minority, regarding your view of what occurred.

          Now, if you want to say that these incidents endangered inmates who weren’t involved, that would make sense.  And, if you want to say that the sheriff should have (therefore) put a stop to it, that might also make sense.

          But again, jails and prisons aren’t particularly effective at preventing incidents between inmates even during “normal” times.  No one can watch what they do all of the time, especially in common areas.
          It’s not likely that there’s sufficient resources to do so.

          The very nature of jails/prisons doesn’t allow for social distancing in common areas.

          1. David Greenwald

            “ The very nature of jails/prisons doesn’t allow for social distancing in common areas.”

            That’s right. So that leaves them with two choices – one is to not have them in common areas right now and the other is to release those who do not need to be there – we previously went through a long list of people that are in custody that really are not public safety risks and thus don’t need be there.

        3. Ron Oertel

          So, it seems that David is only going to delete one of my comments, rather than all.  I’ll go ahead and post a slightly modified version of that comment:

          And taking this further, if you want to say that these incidents endangered the sheriff, jail and medical staff, and the general public, I would also agree.

          But again, I believe you are in the clear minority, regarding your previously-stated belief that they were just “fooling around” (something to that effect).

          In my opinion, this type of claim/article calls into question your credibility as a reporter. For that matter, I have doubts that even you believe what you’ve claimed.


  2. Ron Oertel

    I asked that all of my comments in this article be deleted (more than an hour ago), so I’ll see if this is done before responding further (if they’re not deleted).

    It appears that one of my comments has been deleted, so far.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for