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Like a Petri dish for the virus: Tens of thousands of California inmates are at risk

While California sheriffs debate releasing inmates early to avoid a jail epidemic, inmates are saying conditions as unsanitary.
Credit: Courtesy: Johanna Diaz
Jose Armendariz, 29, convicted of second-degree murder, poses at the Kern Valley State Prison in 2017. He has since been moved to the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange County, where he and other medically fragile inmates worry that the spread of the coronavirus could be deadly for them.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Jose Amendariz was on one of his frequent trips to the nurse’s station in Orange County’s largest jail when deputies hauled in a man in a mask.

Of all the inmates inside the jail, the 29-year-old Armendariz needs the most care: insulin shots for Type I diabetes, pills for hypertension, asthma inhaler puffs for his ravaged respiratory system.

The new arrival was of average height and moderate build, his head shaved, nothing particularly noteworthy about him as an inmate. Except for the surgical mask covering his face.

There was no official announcement, but a nurse turned to tell Armendariz: The man in the mask had COVID-19. Armendariz felt the breath rush out of his lungs.

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The jail’s medical unit is a series of concentric circles, with a guard station in the center, a nurse’s station encircling it and jail cells the size of parking spaces in the outermost ring. Armendariz started his 20-foot walk back to his sector.

The men in Armendariz’s medical ward were already worried that the coronavirus pandemic spreading outside their walls would eventually find its way inside. The usual loud chatter rang out from their cells. Amendariz stopped short, waiting for them to quiet down.

“It’s officially here,” he said. The ward fell silent.

A human Petri dish

A jail doctor told Armendariz, who has been incarcerated for 13 years, that he is among the most medically vulnerable to the virus of all the inmates in California. But there are countless others who are at risk inside the state’s 99 adult county jails and state prisons, which house about 150,000 inmates.

So far, few infections have been reported among California’s inmates. Eight inmates in California prisons have tested positive for the coronavirus, along with 62 Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation employees.

In jails, there are no reliable statewide numbers for infections. But in Orange County, ten have been confirmed to have the virus and 159 are in quarantine. Two deputies also have tested positive, including one who works at Armendariz’s jail, the Theo Lacy Facility.

In Los Angeles County, seven inmates have tested positive and one jail nurse who died had the disease. Thirteen other inmates are in isolation with fevers exceeding 100 degrees, and another 308 inmates have been quarantined, meaning they were in close contact with someone in isolation. In Riverside County, a sheriff’s deputy who died of complications from COVID-19 on March 30 likely contracted it from an inmate he escorted to a medical facility.

“Everybody knows from TV shows, from movies, what the environment is like in prison,” said Heather Williams, Federal Defender for the Eastern District of California, which serves as public defenders for federal defendants in Bakersfield, Redding, Fresno and Sacramento. “Two, three, four to a cell, massive meal times. Even the yard gets crowded.

“So you have this Petri dish. It’s inhumane, and it’s a recipe for absolute disaster.”

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An infectious disease is a matter of mathematics. Its transmissibility is defined as its reproduction rate, and this coronavirus is very good at reproducing, better than the flu, although not quite as good as the virus known as SARS. Social distancing, self-isolation, quarantining the sick – all can dampen its spread and forestall a crush of patients flooding hospitals all at once.

But that’s on the outside. In jails, there is no real social distancing, and certainly no self-isolation.

“How do you avoid mass congregation in a jail?” said Linda Bernard, a Pennsylvania legal nurse consultant who testifies on healthcare in jails. “You can do feeding in housing units or cells, but there will be people mixing.”

Jails aren’t isolated from the larger community. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the Cook County Jail in Chicago is the nation’s largest known source of coronavirus infections, with a cluster of at least 350 inmates and guards infected.

Bernard has seen outbreaks of mumps, lice and the flu in jails, and each carries a risk of transmission to the outside world.

“You have employees coming in and picking something up,” Bernard said, “and potentially exposing their families.”

Inmates say conditions are unsafe

When the wheels of justice grind to a halt, the carceral system continues to pump in new inmates as police make new arrests. During the pandemic, with courts closed across the country, the place they all land — and the place most will stay — is the county jail.

Inside, inmates like Armendariz are now locked in a facility with a patient carrying a highly communicable disease that the men are convinced will lead to their own slow, agonizing deaths.

Armendariz, who was convicted when a teenager of second-degree murder of a gang member, and fellow medical-sector inmate Lonnie Kocontes said they’ve watched guards, nurses and inmates in the Orange County jail fail to follow cleaning protocols. Among their biggest fears is contamination when nurses or inmate workers make the rounds with plastic pill bags, which are opened and poured into the hands of inmates.

Worse, they say, is when a nurse hands over medication besides pills, such as nasal or asthma inhalers, which are then handed back to the nurses.

“They say [the isolated inmate] is in isolation, but here’s the problem with that,” said Kocontes, an inmate and attorney charged with the murder of his wife who was in the midst of his own murder trial when the pandemic hit and courts closed. “Medical staff, deputies have to be breathing the same air as him. The nurses often don’t wear masks, the deputies don’t wear masks. There’s a lot of cross contamination.

“Yes, the nurse has gloves on, but how many times has she been in contact with someone else’s pill bag or inhaler? I might as well be shaking hands with all these people. There’s a lot of opportunity for this thing to spread.” 

The inmates are given one small bar of soap each week, Armendariz and Kocontes said, with which the inmates are expected to clean themselves and their cells.

“A lot of guys don’t clean their cells themselves. It’s definitely not sanitary,” Armendariz said.

Armendariz said the jail now mandates that inmates wear masks, made from torn-up bedsheets that inmates wrap around their faces. They also worry that certain jail programs, like a clothing exchange program for inmates, increase the risk for contamination.

Their concerns may get a day in court. Last week, an Orange County civil rights attorney asked a federal court judge to release most of the jail system’s inmates because of “the threat of impending excruciating death.”

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The Orange County jails’ deputies have concerns of their own. In a March 25 letter to Sheriff Don Barnes, the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs requested better cleaning efforts from support staff and temperature checks on inmates. They also requested that Barnes shutter all dormitory or barracks-style housing, leaving only the modules, like the one housing Armendariz.

In response to what they perceive as lax cleaning and quarantine procedures , the inmates have created their own quarantine system. New arrivals are told not to touch anything — newspapers, communal surfaces, the phones attached to the wall — for 12 days after they arrive in the medical unit. There is one phone designated for new inmates.

“We don’t touch that one even if it’s open. You just line up and wait for a different one,” Armendariz said.

After meal times, Armendariz said he’s watched inmate workers use soiled rags to clean communal spaces. He said inmates have to buy their own rags to clean with from the jail’s commissary, and that cleaning supplies are so diluted that they are almost useless.

In response to written questions from CalMatters about the protocols and conditions inside the Theo Lacy Facility, Orange County Commander Joe Balicki of Custody Operations Services said the plastic medicine bags are kept for records and don’t make contact with the inmates.

“Inmates are given additional hygiene items without having to request them. They have been encouraged to practice good hygiene and are provided brochures on how to prevent the spread of C-19,” Balicki said.

“Inmates have access to cleaning supplies 24/7. We have also placed disinfectant spray bottles in the housing areas,” he said. When asked whether cleaning solutions are diluted, Balicki said “that is not the case.”

Daisy Ramirez, ACLU of Southern California’s Orange County Jails Conditions and Policy Coordinator, operates a hotline for inmates and their families. “People are terrified,” she said. “People on the inside also have no information.”

ACLU says release them; some sheriffs resist 

Civil liberties advocates have demanded in meetings and letters that the Orange County jails immediately release medically fragile inmates, as well as those older than 65.

Nationwide, the decision on how many inmates should be released falls to elected officials who run county and municipal jails, and who have elections to win when the pandemic ends.

“Some municipalities, some jurisdictions are taking it as seriously as possible,” said Tifanei Ressl-Moyer of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Others are just waiting and hoping it doesn’t happen to them.”

In late March, the state began to release a total of 3,500 prison inmates who were within 60 days of their release date.

Los Angeles County has made broad public efforts to reduce arrests and release the low-risk offenders still inside. The Los Angeles County jail system has released at least 1,700 inmates, and Sheriff Alex Villanueva has ordered his deputies and municipal departments in the county to make fewer arrests and issue more citations.

Before the pandemic, about 300 people per day were brought into the county’s jails. That number, Villanueva said earlier this month, was down to about 70 each day.

Orange County’s jail population is down to 3,904 from its March 6 population of 5250. The jail has released 331 inmates, Barnes told the Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, all of them medically fragile or seniors.

Barnes has resisted calls for broader action to release inmates. 

“My goal is never to release people early,” Barnes said at a press conference. However, he said he’s open to releasing medically fragile inmates and those charged with or convicted of nonviolent crimes. He did not respond to repeated interview requests from CalMatters.

Among California’s most populous counties, Riverside, San Bernardino and Fresno counties have not changed their jail policies or released inmates early.

“Unlike other jurisdictions, I have no intention of preemptively releasing inmates out of fear something may or may not happen,” Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said last month. “I feel very strongly that the inmates we have remaining in custody pose a much greater risk to public safety than the risk this virus poses to them while they are in custody.”

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Alameda, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, among others, have each released a significant number of jail inmates while taking protective steps, such as feeding inmates in cells and cancelling scheduled visits.

In Sacramento County, the sheriff has ordered the release of inmates with 30 days or fewer remaining in their sentences. The jail released 421 inmates in late March of the total pre-pandemic population of about 3,700 inmates.

The Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County on Wednesday housed about 2,000 inmates, half its usual capacity. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office has stopped conducting all arrests except for those involving violent crimes, or those deemed “serious” by the sheriff’s office.

“The political landscape in Orange County is very different,” said Ramirez of the ACLU. “It’s an extremely tough-on-crime attitude that has existed for decades. In Los Angeles jails they’re talking about care first. In Orange County, we’re not there yet.”

California’s Judicial Council took measures to reduce jail populations this week by setting bail statewide at zero for misdemeanors and lower-level felonies to “safely reduce jail populations.”

In the federal prison system, while celebrities like rapper Takashi69 have been released from jail on compassionate grounds, federal prosecutors are still contesting the threat of the coronavirus.

Premal Dharia, a former public defender and founder of the Defender Impact Initiative, said despite the pandemic, prosecutors continue to push for pretrial detention in nonviolent crimes.

“These are the sort of actions that defy logic, given the urgency of the pandemic,” Dharia said.

McGregor Scott, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, recently wrote that the pandemic doesn’t qualify accused inmates for immediate release.

“The COVID-19 pandemic does not create a situation where there is a threat of serious physical or emotional injury to [the defendant] resulting from her incarceration pending sentencing,” Scott wrote when opposing bail review for a Northern California woman charged with drug distribution and conspiracy.

He added that the pandemic may in fact make it easier for a released inmate to avoid recapture. “During a time when community resources are devoted to fighting COVID-19, it may be easier for a motivated defendant to hide.”

Scott also has opposed the pretrial release of a 62-year-old man accused of selling 18 pounds of methamphetamine last November.

‘He’s so close to walking out’

The prioritization of medically-fragile inmates has the 14 other men in Armendariz’s sector wondering whether they’re next to be released. They’ve had multiple heart attacks, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis or asthma, conditions which exacerbate their risk for severe complications from COVID-19. All are being held in maximum security because they have been accused or convicted of serious offenses.

Kocontes, the lawyer held in the Theo Lacy Facility’s medical module with Armendariz, said he can envision a federal claim by inmates against the Orange County jail system, claiming that keeping medically-fragile inmates inside a jail amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

“By the time that’s litigated, you’re gonna have a lot of dead people,” Kocontes said.

Now, Armendariz waits for the sound he fears the most – a dry cough from someone in his module.

Because he was charged at 16, his case has been sent to a judge to consider a transfer to juvenile court. After a positive probation report last year, he and his family believed he could be released as soon as May.

Then the pandemic hit. Non-essential court cases were put on hold and Armendariz was left in the county lockup, waiting.

“He’s so close to walking out,” said Armendariz’s sister, Johanna Diaz. “This COVID thing is so close to him, I don’t know, it’s a matter of time before it gets to him.

“He was looking at walking out in May. God forbid he does get the coronavirus, he basically loses his chance at walking out and having a life.”

In a letter, Armendariz wrote Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer that he feels helpless as the coronavirus heads their way.

“I feel like I’m on the Titanic as it’s sinking and you’re telling me there’s no room on the life rafts because of my past. Unlike the Titanic, there is plenty of room on the life rafts, but you’d rather watch us drown.”

Nigel Duara is a reporter with CalMatters. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California. 

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