Sheriff: LA County prisoners are infecting themselves with coronavirus in hopes of getting released

Wednesday, May 13, 2020
By Paul Martin

by: Michael Alexander
Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Inmates at a Los Angeles County jail are deliberately trying to infect themselves with COVID-19, authorities said.

L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva, in a meeting with reporters, noted that the county jail system saw a 60 percent jump in coronavirus cases among its inmates in just one week — allegedly a direct result of the inmates’ attempts, which were captured multiple times by the jail’s surveillance cameras.

“There was some mistaken belief among the inmate population that if they tested positive, there was a way to force our hand and somehow release more inmates out of our jail environment,” Villanueva said during his meeting with the media.

“That’s not gonna happen,” he added as he showed the surveillance footage to reporters during the news conference, saying that an investigation is now ongoing.

In one video, the inmates appeared to pass around and take drinks from the same hot water bottle. According to Villanueva, the inmates did this just prior to getting their temperature taken by a prison nurse.

“With the hot water, they were trying to falsely elevate their temperature readings to generate a symptom for COVID-19,” Villanueva said.

In another video, inmates were seen drinking from the same styrofoam cup and even breathing into a common mask. This video, which did not have any timestamps, was said to have been recorded on April 15, based on a statement by Lt. John Satterfield.

The inmates also flouted social distancing rules, Villanueva said, referring to a video showing the inmates crowding one corner of the day room instead of practicing safe physical distancing.

According to Asst. Sheriff Bruce Chase, 30 people in the two modules where the videos were recorded tested positive for the virus, while two inmates have since been released.

In his meeting with the media, Villanueva said investigators have already interviewed individuals involved, but no one admitted to the scheme.

“I think their behavior itself is what convicts them,” he stated.

Based on figures released by the Sheriff’s Department, the inmates had been quarantined at the North County jail since at least April 13.

According to Satterfield, the said clips were just a “sampling” of the many other videos that are currently being reviewed and used in the ongoing investigation.

During the press briefing, Villanueva said the county has taken several measures to reduce and prevent the spread of COVID-19 within its jail system, including population reduction, adding COVID-19 screening, cleaning of its facilities and social distancing.

The sheriff previously faced a lawsuit last month, after several civil rights groups noted that he and Los Angeles County have failed to adequately protect jail inmates from COVID-19.

Villanueva was issued a subpoena for not attending a meeting meant to discuss his department’s actions.

As of press time, more than 350 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 inside the L.A. County jails since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Jackie Clark, director of Correctional Health Services, which provides medical treatment to inmates, the first positive COVID-19 infection at the North County jail was recorded no more than three weeks ago.

“They’re in dorm settings, so it’s easy once one person is positive, if everybody is still in close contact with each other, or not wearing masks” to get infected, Clark said in an interview with Los Angeles Times, adding that she has reviewed footage from dorms in which hardly any inmates were seen wearing masks.

Clark said she has since instructed the jail’s nursing staff to advise prisoners to wear the coverings around the clock — even when they are sleeping.

In addition to the county’s efforts, Clark mentioned that members of the health staff have also started testing vulnerable asymptomatic people housed in the Correctional Treatment Center, adding that their goal is to eventually test the entire jail population.

Los Angeles County has logged 32,258 infections and 1,569 deaths from COVID-19, as of this writing.

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