Court orders 50% reduction at Orange County jails due to COVID-19

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An Orange County judge on Friday sided with civil rights attorneys and local activists to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19, ordering a 50 percent reduction in the county’s jail population.

Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson’s decision comes in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Orange County Sheriff’s Department alleging that conditions at the jails violated the state’s constitution and disability discrimination law, according to a news release from ACLU.

Wilson’s order mandates the county to reduce by half the population of inmates in all congregate living areas, including all dormitory housing and multiperson cells.

The order also directs the county to submit a plan detailing how the reduction will be achieved no later than Dec. 31. The plan must ensure mask-wearing compliance and proper social distancing “until the current COVID-19 emergency is declared terminated,” the judge’s order said.

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said in a statement on Friday that his department was “evaluating the order, its impacts and our options for appeal.”

“If the order stands, it will result in the release of more than 1,800 inmates,” Barnes stated. “Many of these inmates are in pre-trial status for, or have been convicted of, violent crimes and will be released back into the community. This order puts our community at substantial risk and does not take into account the impact on the victims of these crimes.”

On Thursday, the Sheriff’s Department announced that the latest outbreak in Orange County jails resulted in 74 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Some of the inmates who tested positive had symptoms, but none have been hospitalized, the department said, adding that the majority of cases have been asymptomatic.

“Just as we have seen COVID-19 cases rise in the community, we are now seeing that impact our jail,” Barnes stated Thursday. “Throughout the pandemic, we have gone beyond CDC guidelines and increased testing for inmates and employees. I am confident that the practices and procedures we have implemented in previous cases will bring cases back down to zero as we have before.”

Carrie Braun, spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department, said on Friday the current number of COVID-19 positive inmates in the county’s jail system is 130, with 27 from new bookings and 111 from the general population.

The county’s jails have not had any inmate deaths from COVID-19 either, Braun added. 

The ACLU has been fighting for months to secure better conditions in Orange County jails. The nonprofit launched a class-action lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department in late April calling for the release of medically-vulnerable inmates and better social distancing, healthcare, testing and personal protective equipment. 

The ACLU said Wilson’s decision builds off of a similar ruling issued by a state appeals court in October that ordered San Quentin State Prison to reduce its population by 50 percent over virus concerns.

“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,” Daisy Ramirez, ACLU’s jails conditions and policy coordinator, said in a Friday news release. “This order recognizes that we must not forget the humanity of incarcerated people, and they should not be put in mortal danger.”

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