At least 1,700 jail inmates have been released from custody in Los Angeles County over fears of the spreading coronavirus, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said Tuesday.
Villanueva told reporters during an afternoon conference call that none of the inmates released are considered a threat to the public. On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he was ruling out freeing any violent offenders.
The sheriff confirmed 1,700 inmates were released by late Monday. He said 30% of the roughly 15,000 inmates in the county are considered homeless, another population health authorities have described as vulnerable to contracting and transmitting the virus.
Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported about 6% of the jail population had already been freed over a 3-week period.
Even while allowing for the release of inmates, Newsom expressed concern over what could happen if those same people end up without a home once they’re out.
“If we start to release prisoners that are not prepared with their parole plans, they may end up out on the streets and sidewalks, in a homeless shelter,” Newsom said. “If we don’t prepare people to get back on their feet, they may end up in the emergency rooms.”
Across California’s corrections facilities, one inmate and five employees have tested positive as of Monday, according to the Associated Press. Authorities are grappling with the possibility of crowded jails leading to inmates and employees rapidly infecting one another.
But the fact that some of those inmates could later become homeless has presented another possible risk to public health amid a virus that’s killed 11 people in the county.
“You’re gonna see a steady progression in these numbers,” Villanueva said of the growing infections.
Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the county’s health department, reported four additional COVID-19-related deaths Tuesday including a patient under the age of 18. She said 256 cases surfaced in just the last 48 hours, bringing the total in the county to more than 660.
According to Ferrer, health officials continue to test homeless individuals and inmates, and none have tested positive for the virus thus far. But she said the county “can expect” to see such cases in the future.
“We have had other outbreaks in the jail,” Ferrer said, referring to past illnesses.
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union penned a letter to state governors, federal officials and other leaders calling for the release of inmates identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as vulnerable to the virus.
The letter also called on local sheriffs to ensure jail facilities are hygenic and safe, something Villanueva said the county is doing by ramping up cleaning protocols.