ACLU sues OC Sheriff, demanding release of inmates during COVID-19 pandemic

Detainees walk through the an outdoor yard at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange, California, on Tuesday, March 14, 2017. (Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday against the Orange County sheriff to force him and the county to reduce the jails population to better implement social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The federal lawsuit filed in Santa Ana demands the immediate release of "vulnerable and disabled" inmates, improvements to social distancing, increases in care, testing and personal protective equipment.

Orange County sheriff released the following statement in response:

“The care and safety of inmates and my staff working in the Orange County Jail remains my top priority.  To that end, my custodial staff and I have implemented extraordinary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and preserve jail operations. These measures include the release of a limited amount of sentenced low-level offenders.
“In a one month period our jail population has declined by 45%, from 5,303 inmates on March 7, 2020 to 2,911 inmates on April 28, 2020.  Today’s jail population occupies only 39% of our jail’s actual capacity of just over 7,400 beds.  I will continue to take measures needed to ensure the capacity is available to maintain safe operations and preserve our ability to house criminal offenders. At this moment, the early release of specified low level offenders and the actions by the courts provide the capacity to meet our current needs.
“In preserving the safety of our custody operations, I must also ensure the safety of the law-abiding public.  I am not supportive of extensive preemptive releases that go beyond what is necessary to keep the jail and community safe.  I am confident that the measures we continue to take in the jails meet our obligation to provide for the safety of both inmates and staff.”

The sheriff's department on Thursday reported 122 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Three deputies have also contracted coronavirus, but have fully recovered.

Sheriff Don Barnes told the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that he has reduced the jail population by 45% since last month, when the state issued its stay-at-home order.

According to the ACLU, Daniel Parker, a UC Irvine assistant professor of public health and epidemiology, is warning that the number of coronavirus cases in the jails could quadruple by next week.

The ACLU alleges the disability rights of inmates are being violated.

"The Orange County Sheriff's Department has repeatedly failed its obligation to protect the safety of people in its custody," said Jacob Reisberg, a jail conditions advocate at the ACLU. "Under normal circumstances, this lack of care is shameful, but during COVID-19 it is catastrophic."

The ACLU claims that more than 500 inmates are "medically vulnerable" or disabled and should be released.

Among the plaintiffs are Don Wagner, a 68-year-old cancer survivor who claims he is vulnerable when he has to go get his blood pressure and thyroid levels checked and that he is only give one small bar of soap a week with which to clean himself.

Another plaintiff is 64-year-old Cynthia Campbell, who has rheumatoid arthritis and claims she cannot maintain 6 feet of distance from others when she goes for treatments.

Named plaintiff Melissa Ahlman, 32, fears contracting the disease and passing it on to her 7-month-old baby when she pumps milk for her. She said she has to wait in "crowded areas" with sick inmates when delivering the milk to nurses.

"I wonder what will happen if I get sick and it spreads to my baby through my milk," Ahlman said. "And I worry that I will get sick in here and not be able to come home to her."

The lawsuit demands a plan be developed and monitored by a public health expert to reduce the jails population.