When the coronavirus struck in March, medical experts feared Southern California jails would become hotbeds of infection. But seven months later, Sheriff Don Barnes says the virus has decreased dramatically in the Orange County jail system under his stewardship.
The number of inmates infected with COVID-19 has fallen from a high of 220 in May to just nine this week — six of them new bookings, Barnes said at a Wednesday news conference. Over the past seven months, he said, a total of 569 inmates have been infected in county jails.
“With guidance from our health partners, the department implemented a series of changes to practices and procedures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The success of our strategy is demonstrated by our numbers,” Barnes said in an email. “COVID-19 is still present in our community, yet our numbers remain low because of the collaboration between deputies and correctional health staff.”
Barnes avoided the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 with a combination of strategies, the most important being early release. Like many of his law enforcement colleagues, Barnes released 1,072 low-level inmates with six months or less left on their sentences. About 165 of the released inmates were considered medically vulnerable. Orange County judges also released another 2,357 inmates early.
On the streets, deputies were encouraged to issue citations when possible instead of bringing arrestees to jail. Those measures helped reduce the jail population from a high of 5,000 to a low of 2,700. The population this week has slowly risen to nearly 3,800, spokeswoman Carrie Braun said.
Behind bars, sanitation was increased, inmates were given more cleaning materials and hand soap. Face coverings are now issued to all inmates and employees. Those entering the jail have their temperatures taken. New detainees are quarantined and then tested for COVID-19 on day 11 or 12, before they are sent with the general population, Braun said.
“Good for the sheriff,” said civil rights attorney Richard Herman, who has repeatedly sued the department. “Now reopen jail visits.”
Barnes in March suspended jail visits because of the crowds gathering in violation of social distancing. The move was unpopular with inmates and their families.
However, Barnes said Wednesday that he would allow visits after the county moves from its red designation to orange, referring to California’s COVID-19 color code for each county. The codes are yellow, orange, red and purple, with yellow being the safest.
Source: Orange County Register