Orange County sheriff to begin early release of some inmates

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes is set to begin releasing inmates with 60 days or less to go on their sentences in an effort to reduce the jail population during an outbreak of coronavirus in the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana.

Barnes has the authority to begin releasing inmates, but Friday afternoon he was going to get the blessing of an Orange County Superior Court judge in a "collaborative'' effort with the courts "and other judicial partners,'' according to Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

Among the factors that will be considered when releasing inmates will be whether they are elderly or "medically vulnerable,'' Braun said.

Sheriff's officials received their first diagnosis of COVID-19 on Tuesday. An inmate in his 40s tested positive and was placed in isolation. He had been booked on June 17, 2018, on suspicion of child endangerment, torture, false imprisonment and assault with a deadly weapon.

Thursday night, Sheriff's officials announced two more men in the Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana tested positive for coronavirus. They were all housed in the same module in the jail, officials said.

The two newly diagnosed inmates were isolated, and all of the other inmates in that module were transferred to isolated housing units to be monitored for symptoms, officials said.

Barnes and Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer had resisted early release of inmates, but discussions with Tom Dominguez, president of the union representing the deputies, helped evolve their thinking on the issue.

"I think the memo from (the sheriff's union) was very important because I don't think it was clear to either me as a district attorney or the public that the way the inmates have been housed in congregant living has been problematic,'' Spitzer told City News Service.

Hundreds of inmates live in dormitory-style or barracks jails that make it difficult to enforce keeping six feet of distance from each other and deputies, Spitzer said.

Dominguez has recommended shutting down any "non-modular'' jail units with dorms or barracks.

"We recommend that be done as soon as possible, especially since we've had more positive cases and we just hope it's not too late,'' Dominguez told City News Service. "We're  much more alarmed, but in reality, based on what's happening across the country, it's not unexpected.''

Barnes has said he had 1,400 free beds and could house 100 inmates in isolation. Cutting out dormitory and barracks will significantly cut down on the number of available beds. In addition, there are some jails that house up to four inmates and are too small to maintain six feet of distancing.

RELATED:, FOX launches national hub for COVID-19 news and updates. 

Spitzer said a lack of personal protection equipment for deputies working in the jails was another factor that led him to allow early release for some inmates.

He said that the two new cases were inmates in an adjacent unit housing 68 others, and the first inmate to test positive had been in the jail for a year and a half.

"You have two more positives, which means they have an infectious disease percolating in the jail that they need to handle immediately,'' Spitzer said.

He said he insisted on adding categories of serious crimes to consider when releasing inmates.

"We have excluded serious and violent (felons) from being early released, and sex offenders from being released early,'' Spitzer said. He praised Barnes for "doing a phenomenal job, and the union for
weighing in.''

Spitzer also encouraged officials to make sure they test inmates so sick people are not released into the community.

"If someone has the virus, they may not have any symptoms, but if they have the virus, they should not be allowed to be released if they have time left on their sentence,'' Spitzer said.

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