On Friday December 11, 2020 Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson ordered Sheriff Don Barnes to release 50% of the inmate population from Orange County jails in order to curtail the spread of Covid-19 among the jail population. Judge Wilson’s order came in response to an ongoing lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union last April. 

Sheriff Barnes and District Attorney Tod Spitzer are refusing to comply with the judge’s order, claiming that data shows the inmates they’ve already released have committed three times more crimes since their release. They claim that complying with Judge Wilson’s order would put the public in grave danger. 

Barnes’s and Spitzer’s claims are somewhat confusing. Are they saying that the inmates they’ve previously released were tried and convicted of predatory crimes and they then went out after being released and preyed on members of the public at three times the previous rate? Have these predators been tried, found guilty and resentenced for these alleged post-release crimes?  

Most people held in county jails are pre-trial detainees. They have not yet been convicted of a crime, and for various reasons including inability to post bail they’re being held in jail pending trial. Others have been convicted of a low-level crime such as drug possession or another misdemeanor and sentenced to serve less than a year in jail. Finally, there are people held in county jails post-conviction who are awaiting transfer to state prison. 

Sheriff Barnes’ remarks imply that those released had already been convicted of a violent predatory crime and that he has clear and convincing evidence they are guilty of committing three times as many crimes since being released from jail. At the least, he’s admitting to a presumption of guilt prior to trial or conviction. And he’s calling on the public to join him in his backwards and unconstitutional assumptions. 

Pretrial Detainee Eddie Lee Anderson:  The “First” O.C. Jail Inmate to Die of Covid-19  

Eddie Lee Anderson, age 68, was charged with the 1976 murder of Leslie Penrod Harris, after DNA evidence was reexamined using new genealogy techniques. He was extradited from River Ridge Louisiana to Orange County, California and booked into Orange County Jail on July 1, 2019. Eddie Lee was being held in Orange County jail pending trial. 

Eddie Lee Anderson languished in jail for almost a year-and-a-half before succumbing to Covid-19. He was admitted to a hospital on December 13, having tested positive for Covid earlier in the week. The following Friday, December 18, he died of complications from Covid-19.

He was hospitalized two days after Judge Wilson ordered the 50% reduction in O.C. jail inmate population, which Sheriff Barnes refused to comply with, and three days after Sheriff Barnes reported 100 positive cases in O.C. jails.  

By Monday, December 14, the day after Eddie Lee Anderson was hospitalized, the outbreak of Covid-19 in O.C. jails had quadrupled, with 416 inmates testing positive.  A week later that number had doubled. The numbers keep growing, as you can see by clicking the link.

Sheriff Don Barnes has implied that he’s more of an authority on what is Constitutional than Governor Gavin Newsom, stating that he will defy the California Governor’s order to stay at home, wear masks, and social distance. He asserts that he has no intention of enforcing the governor’s mandate and believes that it may be unconstitutional. 

Our Constitution does not explicitly state that a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty but the concept is implied throughout and has been upheld by case law. For Barnes to claim that people who have not been tried and convicted are guilty of the crimes they’ve been charged with and are out preying on the public and committing more crimes is against every legal principle in our United States Constitution.

 Eddie Lee Anderson has been deprived of his Constitutional right to stand trial for the crime he’s been accused of. The family of his alleged victim Leslie Penrod Harris may never know the truth of what happened to her. Justice has been denied. The opportunity to prove or disprove whether, in fact, Eddie Lee Anderson is the person responsible for Leslie Penrod Harris’s death is forever denied to both parties and their surviving family members.

Orange County hospitals have reached their capacity for new cases as Covid-19 continues to surge. As of December 17, 2020 they have no more hospital beds. The ACLU foresaw this situation when it filed the lawsuit against Sheriff Don Barnes and the Orange County Jail.

The American Civil Liberties Union vs. Don Barnes and Orange County, California

The 70-page Complaint the ACLU filed in both state and federal courts last April charges that conditions in the Orange County Jail put inmates at “imminent risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19.” The complaint charges that, in ignoring CDC guidance for managing Covid-19 in correctional facilities, Barnes and the County of Orange have shown deliberate indifference to the rights and safety of prisoners. 

The prisoners the lawsuit was filed to protect fall into two classes and four subclasses:

  1. Pretrial Class (including medically vulnerable and disability subclasses);
  2. Post Conviction Class (including medically vulnerable and disability subclasses).
  3. Medically-Vulnerable Subclasses (both Pre-trial and Post-conviction) include people “who, because of age, pregnancy, and/or underlying medical conditions, are particularly vulnerable to death or serious illness if they contract Covid-19.” (p.5)
  4. Disability Subclasses (both Pre-trial and Post-conviction) include “all people in the Medically-Vulnerable subclasses who are vulnerable because of conditions that are protected under federal disability rights laws.” (p.5)

 People in Pre-trial Custody

People in pre-trial custody have not been found guilty of any crime. They cannot control the circumstances under which they are being held so it falls to their jailers to keep them safe and provide adequate medical care. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects people held in pre-trial custody from unreasonably dangerous health and safety conditions.

The American Civil Liberties Union complaint alleges that the unsafe conditions the pre-trial class (including the medically-vulnerable and disability subclasses) are being held in constitute punishment, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The complaint further states that O.C. Jail doesn’t have the capacity to comply with public health guidelines therefore it cannot lawfully continue to hold these people who have yet to be convicted of any crime under the present conditions.

Citing Mary Gordon vs. County of Orange, the complaint states that: 

“Regardless of the subjective intent of Defendants, objective deliberate indifference to the serious risk that COVID-19 poses to members of the Pre-trial Class, and particularly members of the Medically-Vulnerable Pre-trial Subclass, violates this right.” (p. 56)

People Who Have Been Convicted of a Crime

The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects people who have been convicted of a crime from cruel and unusual punishment. The ACLU complaint alleges that Orange County has 

  • Failed to comply with public health guidelines
  • Doesn’t have the ability to comply with the guidelines
  • Cannot provide for the safety of the post-conviction class.

The complaint specifically asserts that the medically vulnerable and disability subclasses include a whole spectrum of underlying health conditions; these inmates are especially in danger of serious injury or death from Covid-19. A high percentage of people in Orange County Jail system fall into these protected subclasses and are in heightened danger of serious injury or death from Covid-19.

Sheriff Barnes Claims Complying With Judge Wilson’s Order Would Put the Public in Grave Danger

Covid-19 is raging throughout Orange County. Medical services are beginning to resemble a war zone. Hospitals have no more room, have set up tents outside, and are housing patients in offices and wherever there’s any space as serious cases overwhelm local emergency rooms. 

And yet Sheriff Barnes refuses to enforce Governor Newsom’s mandate to wear masks, social distance and stay home. He has appealed Judge Peter Wilson’s order to release 50% of the inmate population held in his jails. He has persuaded the public, many of whom also refuse to abide by the governor’s mandate, that complying with Judge Wilson’s order would in effect set loose a gang of violent predators who would rampage throughout the county preying on people without restraint.

 Who is posing a greater risk to law-abiding citizens? The people being held in jail? Or Orange County’s rogue sheriff who is himself defying the rule of law along with public health guidelines?  

Orange County Hospitals Are Overwhelmed and at a Breaking Point

A local jail population is not isolated from the surrounding community. People enter and leave the jail every day, including inmates being booked in and released, deputies and other staff, medical workers and contractors who provide various services to keep the jail running. 

If the Sheriff does not comply with Public Health Guidelines inside the jail, the surrounding community will see a spike in cases and hospitalizations will climb. At this point Orange County cannot support this surge in Covid-19 cases and the corresponding strain on local medical services.

Orange County Jail is One of Many Examples Where Sheriffs Refuse to Comply With Public Health Authority Recommendations

Jails across California and the nation have complied with public health mandates and recommendations to varying degrees. Areas where the county jail will not comply invariably see a spike of Covid-19 cases in the surrounding community. These spikes in Covid-19 cases in and out of jails lead to healthcare systems and emergency services which are overwhelmed and have reached a breaking point. 

Because inmates are cycled in and out of jails on a daily basis and live in close quarters with little or no ability to distance from others, jails are a breeding ground for infectious diseases. Studies show there is a link between Covid-19 cases in local jails and in the surrounding community. 

Harvard University cited one study  which states that cycling people in and out of jail has a “multiplier effect”: for every inmate cycled in and out of a local jail cases rise drastically in the surrounding community and state. Using Chicago, Illinois as an example the study found that Cook County Jail inmates accounted for 60% of Covid-19 cases in Chicago and 37% in the state of Illinois!  

Banning the Use of Masks in Tulare County Jail

Tulare County, a rural county south of Fresno, has one of the highest rates of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the state of California. As of December 28, 2020 it’s had 31,665 cases and 373 deaths. The 2019 census lists the population as 467,801. One out of every 14 residents of Tulare County currently has or has had Covid-19. Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux forbade inmates and staff in the Tulare County jails to wear masks. 

Despite intimidation by armed deputies and guards seeking to bar inmates from consulting attorneys regarding deplorable conditions within the 5-jail system, four courageous inmates filed a class action lawsuit on July 29 with the help of a local firm and the ACLU. By early September a federal judge ordered Sheriff Boudreaux and the County Jails to develop a Covid-19 safety plan and put it in writing.  

Because some residents in any community cycle in and out of jail and guards leave the jail and go home each day, forbidding safety measures in a county jail system can be seen as reckless disregard for inmate safety and the safety of the community at large.  

What Can We Do to Protect Ourselves and Our Loved Ones From Covid-19 in County Jail?

If you or somebody you love suffers serious injury or death after contracting Covid-19 in a county jail, you need to contact a Civil Rights attorney without delay. Sheriffs and other county employees have a duty to keep jail inmates safe and healthy.

Sheriff Don Barnes recently filed an appeal of Judge Peter Wilson’s order to reduce the jail population. Hopefully, by the time this case winds its way through the courts we will all be safely vaccinated. However, in the meantime inmates continue to be in grave danger of serious illness and death from Covid-19.

By disregarding public health guidelines and making their own rules, sheriffs have endangered inmates’ lives and the community. They are exacerbating a serious emergency that medical workers are not equipped to deal with.

Baseless claims that crime rates spike after inmates are released to allow jails to comply with public health guidelines are not a valid excuse for failing to protect inmates from a deadly pandemic.

By filing a Civil Rights Lawsuit you can hold jailers and others accountable for what amounts to a reckless disregard for the lives and safety of inmates, medical workers and people who live in your community.  

Contact The Sehat Law Firm Without Delay If You or Someone You Love Suffers Serious Injury or Death Due to In-Custody Negligence by CDCR!

There are few people who are in greater danger of catching Covid-19 than those in jail. Jail inmates’ situation allows fewer options to stay safe during this deadly pandemic. Unlike people in prison and in convalescent homes, people cycle in and out of county jails every single day. 

Because inmates are helpless to avoid close contact with others, it is crucial that County

Sheriffs do all they can to mitigate the dangers inherent in living in crowded conditions with few options for social distancing. All sheriffs, deputies, staff and administrators are obligated by federal law to ensure that health and safety standards and procedures are in place to protect inmates from Covid-19.

Sadly, some sheriffs seem to have their own agenda. Inmate safety and the safety of the community is not a top priority. The only way to get their attention and force them to do all they can to protect inmates from Covid-19 is through Civil Litigation. When injured parties and their surviving family members file claims alleging serious injury and death, wrongdoers can be held liable for damages.

If you or someone you love suffers grave injury or death in a California jail due to negligence or failure to protect from Covid-19, contact Sehat Law without delay. Filing a lawsuit can help force local sheriffs to abide by the law and by public health guidelines. Together we can hold Sheriffs accountable for failing to protect inmates, hospital workers, and the public during a deadly plague.