By Crescenzo Vellucci
SANTA ANA, CA – Elected California Sheriffs up and down the state have refused to enforce COVID-19 mask orders and avoided requirements to make jails safer by not distributing masks to inmates or even requiring their own correctional staff wear masks and take other steps to stop the spread of the virus in their jails.
Now, the Orange County Sheriff is refusing to obey a Superior Court order to release or transfer about 1,800 inmates in the Orange County Jail because of their susceptibility to COVID-19.
“I have no intention of doing that, of releasing those individuals back into the community. I think they pose a serious threat,” Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes told “Fox & Friends” Tuesday, charging that he won’t release some who are locked up for murder and child molestation.
Last Friday, Judge Peter J. Wilson of the Orange County Superior Court ordered half the population of the Orange County Jail – about 1,800 of the most “vulnerable” inmates at risk of being infected with COVID-19 – to be removed from the jail, some released and other transferred to “safer” jails.
Judge Wilson strongly criticized the “deliberate indifference” that has put inmates in danger – about 74 inmates has caught the virus and a similar number awaiting results – by not allowing inmates to socially distance.
The judge, decrying how the jail has “violated the constitutional rights” of those inside the facility, also mandated the jail direct all staff to wear masks at all times.
The ACLU lawsuit highlighted alleged gross neglect by Sheriff Barnes and Orange County about their lack of protections for incarcerated people with underlying medical conditions and disabilities in the face of a deadly pandemic.
“I think it (the order) is not only absurd, I think it places the community at significant risk. He (the judge) got a lot of his facts incorrect,” Barnes said Tuesday, claiming that “We have been testing inmates. We have been so far ahead of the curve when it came to best practices within our jails.”
Barnes said he’d already released 1,400 inmates since March, all low-level offenders.
“The only inmates remaining now are serious offenders. Of the medically vulnerable, 90 of them are in custody for murder or attempted murder, 94 for child molestation,” Barnes added, noting that he planned to appeal the Superior Court ruling.
Incarcerated people in Orange County jails have been demanding the immediate release of the most vulnerable people in jail because of their increased risk of contracting COVID, and also asked Orange County jails to provide proper social distancing conditions and provide adequate personal protective equipment, as recommended by public health officials, to protect vulnerable people in jail.
On June 2, 2020, petitioners Cynthia Campbell, Monique Castillo, Sandy Gonzalez, Cecibel Caridad Ortiz, Mark Trace and Don Wager filed a Verified Petition for Writs of Mandate and Habeas Corpus and Complaint for Injunctive Relief against defendant Don Barnes, the Sheriff of Orange County.
The petition, filed as class action, was supported by four volumes of documentary evidence.
According to the filing, the petitioners are all incarcerated people with underlying medical conditions and are forced in spaces with little to no social distancing, care, testing, and personal protective equipment.
Cynthia Campbell, for example, suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, a painful autoimmune condition. The class action argues she is constantly at risk of contracting COVID due to jail conditions forcing her into situations where she is closer than six-feet of other incarcerated people.
The jail conditions make it impossible for her to be six feet apart from other incarcerated people whenever she receives her treatments.
Monique Castillo, another plaintiff, has type 1 diabetes. The pleadings note she is afraid of being exposed to COVID because the medical office that she visits four times a day, lacks proper social distancing conditions. Many people tend to be present in the waiting area of the medical office and are not able to properly socially distance, the suit suggests.
Cecibel Caridad Ortiz, also has type 1 diabetes. The court action claims she has had the unfortunate experience of being given only one single-use mask that she had to use over the course of three weeks. She also uses the same medical module with six other people which increases her chances of exposure of the virus.
Don Wagner, is a cancer survivor and the filing charges he is in danger of being exposed to COVID whenever he visits the medical station to get his blood pressure monitored. He has not been given proper personal protective equipment, and has stated he has had to use sheets as makeshift masks and has no money to buy cleaning supplies.
On October 29, 2020, the Court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss or stay and overruled the defendant’s demurrers.
As reflected in the Minute Order, the Court found that, given the documents filed in support of the motions ruled, the petitioners made a prima facie case showing that they are entitled to injunctive relief.
The Court accordingly issued an Order in accordance with CRC rule 4.551(c) in which the court takes the petitioner’s factual allegations as true and makes a preliminary assessment regarding whether the petitioner would be entitled to relief if his or her factual allegations were proved.
“This victory belongs to the incarcerated people who had the courage to speak out about Sheriff Barnes’ failed response to COVID-19,” said Daisy Ramirez, jails conditions & policy coordinator at the ACLU SoCal.
“Their resistance and leadership will save lives, as Orange County hospitals are currently nearing capacity. The court’s decision to alleviate the pressure on the jail by depopulating will help prevent the medical infrastructure — in the jail and in the surrounding community — from becoming totally overwhelmed. This order recognizes that we must not forget the humanity of incarcerated people, and they should not be put in mortal danger,” she added.
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