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The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department suspects inmates at the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic tried to get infected with the coronavirus under the false belief that an outbreak will force the agency to make additional cuts on the jail population.

In his weekly media briefing on Monday, Sheriff Alex Villanueva linked the incident to 21 coronavirus infections among inmates. He blamed it for the jump in COVID-19 cases in mid-April at the “relatively most isolated” facility.

The Sheriff’s Department showed video from the module, a common area that held about 50 inmates, at the news conference.

The footage showed inmates huddling close together. Villanueva explained they were drinking from the same cup of hot water, trying to elevate their temperatures while increasing their chances of contracting COVID-19. They were also passing around a mask to sniff, Villanueva said.

When asked about the cases linked to the incident, Villanueva said, “We had zero positives up until that spike, but that now, also, that has impacted our staffing as well.”

Those involved denied trying to contract COVID-19 when investigators asked them, the sheriff said.

A trustee inmate learned of the scheme after finding a stash of items that inmates believed would infect them with the virus, the Los Angeles Times reported. Sources told the paper a trustee was attacked in the jail for removing the items.

As of Monday, 222 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, 4,590 have been quarantined and 317 have recovered. Among employees, 107 have tested positive, 320 have been quarantined and 927 have recovered.

The department, which runs the largest jail system in the country, has released most inmates involved in nonviolent crimes in an effort to reduce the jail population amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the sheriff has said.

Villanueva declined to remark on the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission’s effort to subpoena him over his response to the COVID-19 outbreak, saying that “it will be dealt with through the legal process.”

Panel members want the sheriff to answer questions at their next meeting about his handling of the pandemic. The agency is currently facing a budget deficit that led Villanueva to propose the closure of two patrol stations and cut other services.

At Monday’s news conference, the sheriff also declined to comment on the claim filed by Vanessa Bryant over photos taken by deputies at the Calabasas crash site where her husband and daughter died. The case remains under an internal investigation and he can’t discuss ongoing litigation, the sheriff said.