Incarcerated people at a Los Angeles County jail appear to be caught on camera intentionally trying to infect each other with COVID-19 in order to get released, sparking contradicting narratives between sheriffs and activists as to whether the people in custody were just looking to get their get-out-of-jail-free cards or whether L.A. County jails provide environments where it’s possible for people in custody to follow social distancing and hygiene guidelines in the first place.
According to the Washington Post, by mid-April, the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic, Calif., hadn’t reported any cases of coronavirus infection. That changed a very short time later when two incarcerated people in the facility tested positive for COVID-19. On Monday, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department released a video that appears to show people in custody purposely attempting to expose themselves to the virus by sharing water bottles and face masks and ignoring social distancing guidelines.
In late February, L.A. County began releasing people in custody who have less than 30 days left of their sentence in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the county’s jails. L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva believes those in custody mistakenly thought they would be freed under that policy if they tested positive for the virus.
“It’s sad to think that someone deliberately tried to expose themselves to COVID-19,” L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said during a news conference. “Somehow there was some mistaken belief among the inmate population that if they tested positive that there was a way to force our hand and somehow release more inmates out of our jail environment — and that’s not going to happen.
“It’s dismaying and disheartening,” he said.
Patrisse Cullors—the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed in April accusing L. A. County of failing to provide space for people in custody to practice social distancing as well as failing to test people in custody who show COVID-19 symptoms—has a different take on things, one that rejects Villanueva’s narrative.
“In an attempt to demonize incarcerated people, he is taking a page right out of Trump’s playbook by gaslighting those who are already vulnerable and in absolute fear,” Cullors said, according to the Los Angeles Times.“Contrary to the Sheriff’s allegations, what I’ve been hearing from prisoners is that there isn’t enough soap, there is no hot water, that sheriff deputies are taunting folks inside by coughing in their presence, telling them they’re going to die of COVID.”
But Villanueva insists that the people in custody sharing anything at all proves their true intent.
“It’s not something they share person-to-person, and anyone who practices basic hygiene doesn’t do that anyway,” Villanueva said. “So, in this environment, and then considering the fact that the 21 tested positive out of that module, shows what their intention was.”
“I think their behavior is what convicts them,” he said.