In LA County Jails, Coronavirus Chaos Keeps People Locked Up Longer

Quarantine procedures at LA County jails have led likely thousands of people to miss court dates, and with that, opportunities for release.

A gloved hand points to a holding cell at the hospital ward of the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles on April 16, 2020.
A gloved hand points to a holding cell at the hospital ward of the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles on April 16, 2020. Photo: Chris Carlson/AP

Just days after Gabriel Lopez entered Los Angeles County’s Men’s Central Jail in late April 2020, his housing unit was placed on lockdown. There was possible Covid-19 exposure, jail administrators said, so everyone needed to quarantine.

Lopez was locked in his cell, which he estimates was 6-by-12 feet at most, with three bunkmates, effectively around the clock for almost two months. A few days after the unit was taken off quarantine, the jail announced further exposure and another lockdown, he said — a pattern that would repeat several times during Lopez’s five months in jail, as people were continuously transported in and out of the crowded facilities.

“We were getting quarantine after quarantine after quarantine after quarantine,” Lopez said. “I missed so many court dates because of their negligence.”

Near constant lockdown meant that Lopez didn’t reappear in court until 12 weeks after his arraignment, with proceedings such as a preliminary hearing — usually held within 10 days of arraignment to determine whether there’s enough evidence to hold someone on felony charges — rescheduled eight times in the weeks after he entered the jail, according to an online court register.

He is one of likely thousands of people incarcerated in LA County jails who have missed court dates since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. In a 2020 survey, more than four out of five respondents in the jails who hadn’t been convicted of a crime — around half of the people normally incarcerated by the county — said they had missed court dates because of coronavirus-related restrictions.

In quarantine, those incarcerated in LA County jails are stripped of what little freedoms and amenities they have, such as freedom of movement within their housing unit, access to hot meals, and communication with the outside world. In most cases, they can’t speak with their lawyers until the LA County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jails, gives the all-clear.

“These systems want to operate and exist the same way that they did pre-Covid. And it’s impossible, it’s just not realistic.”

Jail quarantines can also lead to missed appointments, which prevent people from accessing treatment programs that could lead to release, according to LA County defense attorneys. Meanwhile, a pause in transfers from county to state custody has created confusion regarding people’s sentences, which may be keeping some people past their expected release dates. And halted jury trials are keeping many who maintain their innocence stuck in indefinite detention.

These delays have likely exacerbated inequities embedded in the criminal legal system. According to sheriff’s department data gathered by data scientist and activist Roger Pharr and analyzed by UCLA School of Law student researchers, the share of people incarcerated in the county jails who are Black or Hispanic had increased six months into the pandemic, while the percentage of white people decreased. Meanwhile, the percentage of jailed Black people who had been in custody for six months or longer jumped from 36 to 44 percent, a larger increase than other racial groups.

On the whole, the spread of Covid-19 inside LA County jails — a situation, currently incarcerated and recently released people say, the sheriff’s department is mismanaging — as well as delays in the courts, are wreaking havoc on the criminal legal system.

The best way to quell the chaos, advocates say, is by further depopulating the jails, especially by releasing those being held on bail they can’t afford, so incarcerated people aren’t constantly exposed to the coronavirus.

“These systems want to operate and exist the same way that they did pre-Covid,” said Gloria Gonzalez, youth development coordinator at Youth Justice Coalition LA. “And it’s impossible, it’s just not realistic.”

In the early months of the pandemic, local authorities across the United States took measures to significantly reduce jail populations in an effort to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. Because of such efforts, the LA County jail system, the largest in the country, initially reduced its daily population by about 5,000, getting below its current state-rated capacity of 12,404 for the first time on average in nearly four decades.

Yet despite the initially diminished population, LA County jails have been near or exceeding capacity for the entirety of the pandemic — the current population is over 15,300 — and nearly 4,300 incarcerated people have tested positive for Covid-19 in the congregate settings, according to the sheriff’s department. Formerly incarcerated people say that’s likely a significant undercount, citing a lack of distancing and testing that have allowed the virus to spread rapidly, sometimes undetected by jail staff.

“There was no social distancing at all,” said Lopez. Shortly before his unit was first made to quarantine in early May, one of his cellmates began showing symptoms, and he believes he caught the virus from him. He lost his senses of taste and smell and had the chills, and after a few weeks, he had difficulty breathing.

Despite the jails’ frequent use of quarantine orders, jail staff had a lax attitude toward quarantine procedures.

But like others in his vicinity, Lopez didn’t alert jail staff about his condition. People in the housing unit had started ordering fellow inmates not to go “man down,” he said, because they wanted to break the cycle of quarantines. “Everybody was tired of not getting out of their cell, and it was creating tension because nobody can move.”

According to sheriff’s department data, compiled by The Intercept via web archives, between roughly a tenth and nearly half of the LA County jail population has been under quarantine on any given day since mid-April, with a high of 49 percent on coronavirus lockdown in early June. That quarantine population doesn’t include those with suspected or confirmed cases of Covid-19, who are placed in individual isolation: between several dozen and more than 350 cases on a given day during the same period.

Despite the jails’ frequent use of quarantine orders, jail staff had a lax attitude toward quarantine procedures, according to Lopez and Louis Oliverio, who was also incarcerated in Men’s Central Jail. Lopez said that officers would take him out of lockdown mid-quarantine to serve food, one of his chore duties, potentially exposing people in other housing units to the virus. Oliverio said that officers would take exposed people out of units housing incarcerated workers so the workers wouldn’t have to quarantine and the chores could still get done.

A Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department van enters the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles on April 1, 2020.

A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department van enters the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles on April 1, 2020.

Photo: Damian Dovarganes/AP

The jail also placed people with pending test results in congregate settings, according to both men. Oliverio, who is 53 years old and has asthma, tested positive for Covid-19 in April and was taken to the nearby Twin Towers Correctional Facility to isolate. After nine days, officers took him out of quarantine, he said. On his first day back, he remembers reading a newspaper article that cited LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva saying incarcerated people would need two negative tests to be taken out of isolation. It shocked Oliverio because he had never received a negative test, and he didn’t know if he was still contagious. “I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” he said. “They put me back into general population — I had no taste or sense of smell. I was still showing symptoms.” He said he still can’t breathe properly.

Similarly, when Lopez’s housing unit would get taken off quarantine, jail staff would often bring in new arrivals before their Covid-19 test results came out, he said. “Then three, two days later they would get the results: ‘Oh, they’re positive. OK, you guys are quarantined,’” Lopez recalled. “And they would do it over and over and over.”

And when a unit gets quarantined, “everyone misses their court date,” said Oliverio.

The LA County Sheriff’s Department said that it is “not aware” of incarcerated workers being taken out of lockdown mid-quarantine; that it is “not aware” of people being taken out of isolation without negative tests; and that exposing people to Covid-19 by placing someone with a pending test in congregate settings “would never be done intentionally.”

Between June and September, as part of a class-action lawsuit and report on jail conditions, student researchers with the UCLA School of Law’s Bail Practicum gathered questionnaires from 407 people incarcerated in LA County jails.

The survey — from which anonymized data which was shared with The Intercept — isn’t a perfect random sample (it was mostly distributed via word of mouth), but it provides insight into the extent of the jails’ issues with the coronavirus. Almost two-thirds of respondents said they had missed court dates because of the Covid-19 pandemic; of those incarcerated pretrial, it was more than four in five — 180 people — with most reporting that they had missed multiple appearances. Of all of the respondents, around nine in 10 reported having been quarantined or isolated, with many elaborating that their housing units had been placed in group quarantine several times.

Such widespread delay in court proceedings causes delays in release. If someone can’t get into court, they can’t argue for a reduction in charges, confirm a deal with prosecutors, or get funneled into a diversion program.

“We could have an agreement for somebody that wants to resolve their case, either for time served or for a [treatment] program, but if we can’t get them into court to actually do that, then that is delaying their release,” explained Garrett Miller, member of the LA County Public Defenders Union. “We’ve absolutely had clients like that, and it’s really unfortunate.”

According to Alicia Virani, director of the UCLA School of Law’s criminal justice program, these delays intensify the coercive nature of pretrial detention. “All of these people are presumed innocent,” she said, but the longer they’re stuck in jail, the greater the temptation to plead guilty just to get out. County criminal courts are operating on “emergency” bail guidelines to facilitate more pretrial releases, and newly elected District Attorney George Gascón has instructed prosecutors not to ask for cash bail in most cases, but there is a long list of exceptions to the emergency guidelines, and judges still have wide discretion when deciding whether to jail people pretrial.

“The longer people are in custody awaiting trial, the stronger the argument that people’s constitutional rights to a speedy trial are being violated.”

Exacerbating the issue, jury trials in LA County have mostly been halted since the pandemic began, with only a few dozen being held toward the end of 2020 in the crowded courthouses. William Hayes, also of the public defenders union, told The Intercept of a client who was arrested last March and detained pretrial. He pleaded not guilty, and Hayes thought he had a good defense, but with the repeated suspension of jury trials, he wasn’t able to start his trial until November. In the middle of proceedings, the courts issued another suspension order. The judge then declared a mistrial and changed the conditions of the client’s bail, and he was finally released — raising questions as to why, for the previous eight months, he had to sit in jail on high bail.

In this regard, something has to give, Virani said. Releasing people from jails would relieve “the pressure the courts are facing to resume jury trials. The longer people are in custody awaiting trial, the stronger the argument that people’s constitutional rights to a speedy trial are being violated.”

Outside view of the Men Central Jail, amid the Covid 19 pandemic, on May 12, 2020, in Los Angeles, California.

Outside view of the Men’s Central Jail, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, on May 12, 2020, in Los Angeles.

Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images

In addition to jury trials, Covid-19 procedures have delayed other court proceedings, creating criminal docket backlogs, doubling or tripling public defender workloads — and leaving people lingering in jail.

Deneal Young has been incarcerated since 1993 on a murder conviction. But he never killed anyone; he was involved in organizing a drug deal that went bad and convicted under California’s “felony murder rule,” which stated that accomplices to a crime are liable if it results in someone’s killing. In January 2019, a new law went into effect in California that curtailed the felony murder rule, and in November of that year, Young was transferred from state prison to Men’s Central Jail so he could attend resentencing proceedings.

Young attended one court appearance in January 2020, then Covid-19 reached pandemic status. With changing procedures, all but one of his court dates have been postponed since. He’s 50 years old, confined to a wheelchair due to blood clots in his legs, and high-risk for heart attack and stroke, according to a court declaration. He is trying his best to avoid infection, he said, but people, including incarcerated workers who sometimes aren’t wearing masks, are constantly coming in and out of his housing unit.

“I want to have my hearing. I want to find out if I’m going to be released. I want to figure out what’s going on,” Young said.

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After spending four months in jail, Carlos Hernandez was sentenced to three years imprisonment on a probation violation in June. Per his sentence, he would be eligible for release after serving half of his time. He also expected to cash in on time he served in a program during a prior case and hoped to take advantage of state prison terms that allow certain people to serve only a third of their original sentence.

Instead of getting transferred to state prison, however, Hernandez remained stuck in county jail. In November, state prisons stopped accepting transfers as California was becoming a Covid-19 hot spot. As a result, the number of people in LA County jails awaiting transfer to state prison has ballooned from around 2,400 in the beginning of October to 3,900 this week. The backlog has contributed to the steady rise in the LA County jail population; according to the sheriff’s department, “the primary reason the total jail population is currently back over 15,000 people is the near total moratorium in place for transferring [state] inmates.” It has also created confusion regarding the sentences of incarcerated people like Hernandez, which may be leading to them serving longer than necessary.

In August, Hernandez filed a request with the sheriff’s department asking for his earliest possible release date. “You are sentenced to go to prison. We cannot calculate your release date due to you being a state body,” the department’s response said. Four months later, sensing that he should be released, Hernandez sent a letter to the California Board of Parole Hearings. “You are currently housed in a county jail and are not under supervision of the [state],” the board replied. “We recommend you rely on county resources for incarceration, terms, and complaints.”

The sheriff’s department told The Intercept that it has begun sending the state “monthly lists of those we think may be eligible for release,” which have resulted in the release of 713 people.

“I was being given the runaround,” Hernandez said. Eventually, he said he was appointed an attorney, who contacted the judge in his case, and he was finally ordered released last month.

“There’s a lot of people going through that right now,” Hernandez said. “People are getting out a year, six months early from prison, and we’re stuck in the county jail.”

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