“As a mother I feel helpless, my hands are tied. I feel that I too am in my own prison knowing I cannot protect my son from the brutality of supposedly law abiding officers. Knowing that they can get away with so much and are looked upon with halos on their heads… I know too well how this system ‘law enforcement’ works. So far [my son] is surviving due to the strength he receives from his siblings, from his father and me.”

We at Transforming Justice Orange County (TJOC), along with other community organizations, have been working to stay in touch with people impacted by law enforcement and incarceration. It has been difficult.

The conditions inside OC’s jails are abysmal. Several people say they’re scared they won’t make it out alive. One said, “I’m sure people in my module are carriers… it’s only a matter of time” until people start showing symptoms or testing positive in his module. “Medical staff are losing it.”

There are roughly 4,450 people incarcerated in OC jails. Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA) is responsible for deciding who is tested and who is not. The first person to test positive inside was booked into jail almost two years ago – somebody had to have brought the infection in.

So far, 13 of those tested in custody, from both the central jail facilities, are positive for novel coronavirus. Three deputies have also tested positive.

From what we’ve been told, more than 10 people had been isolated with flu-like symptoms pending test results. 180 people were in quarantine after being transferred from Central Men’s Jail to the Intake Release Center, and now all those with symptoms are being isolated there.

Except for Theo Lacy, the jails have now gone into full quarantine, a de-facto lockdown, no longer allowing any incarcerated people in or out. “Mass movement” of those in custody, such as to the chow hall, is suspended. Incarcerated individuals will still be allowed to go to their medical appointments and to limited court appearances.

No más muertes en la cárcel. Students, allies, activists, and impacted residents of OC came to protest outside of Theo Facility on Nov. 24.


Sheriff-Coroner Don Barnes operates the jails and wields broad powers. He has the authority to release people from custody and leverage alternatives to incarceration. As county coroner, he determines the official cause of death for those who die while in his custody. He decides whether a death is an accident, a homicide, a suicide, the result of natural causes, or undetermined.

These powers have also allowed the Sheriff to close CJ1, an arraignment court within the central jail, and OC courts have not yet put in place technology to hold remote preliminary hearings. This means people must linger longer inside, in danger of exposure, for sometimes nothing more than parking tickets, possession of a shopping cart, or the possibility of substance use.

Prior to the quarantine, in-person visits were already suspended. We are afraid it will be even harder to stay in contact with those facing deadly conditions, and with even less oversight, things will only get worse.

Deputies were overheard saying the housing units where people first tested positive are those where in-custody workers are housed. These are dorms/barracks, large open areas with limited toilets and bathing options, dominated by rows of bunk beds. The Sheriff claims the jails are “under capacity” and so he’s assigned one person to each set of bunk beds to facilitate a semblance of social distancing.

According to our sources inside, deputies have asked for new volunteers “to do the job workers normally do. We’re afraid that workers contracted the virus and that’s why they’re looking for other people.”

These workers are responsible for cleaning common areas, but don’t receive adequate supplies. Some housing modules have no hot water. Disinfectants are diluted to the point of being little more than water. When soap is provided, it’s a travel-sized bar expected to last incarcerated people one week.

A representative for OCSD told the media recently that those in custody will now receive face-coverings, but our sources told us not long ago that there were no masks or gloves provided. If workers refused to put themselves in danger, they’d be threatened with disciplinary action. One person said they’ve been using plastic sandwich bags as gloves for protection.

Until recently, not all deputies are wearing masks. Now we’ve been told those escorting incarcerated people will be provided PPE.

The available showers are power-cleaned only once every three weeks. No cleaning supplies are provided to cells. The recreation areas are not cleaned, as deputies rarely enter. There are no cleaning products near the telephones to sanitize mouth/ear pieces. Clothing and blanket exchanges are unreliable. Laundry is not often properly cleaned. We have heard from people inside that they regularly receive stained and torn clothing. Most people resort to hand washing their clothes in their cells immediately after exchange.

Those in custody are concerned about “cross-contamination” within the jail. ​One person expressed concern that those handling food are not wearing masks, only gloves. Another reported that ​deputies said only cold meals or sack lunches will be served from now on.

We’ve heard medical staff sometimes don’t change gloves between patients. On March 30th, someone overheard a doctor say they were running out of masks, with only 100 left for Theo Lacy, and proposed used masks be stored in resealable plastic bags for later use. Some staff have been bringing their own masks. One nurse told us, off the record, that “COVID-19 is spread all over the jail.” Another mentioned the lack of nasal swabs used for testing. Any request for non-COVID-19 related medical care is not being adequately attended to.

Jail staff fear for their lives. The Orange County Sheriff’s Union (OCSU) sent a letter publicly demanding that OCSD release more people, at a minimum those with less than 30 days left on their sentence. Interestingly, days after this letter was published, OCSU president Tom Dominguez suddenly stepped down, citing a desire “to spend more time with his family.”

Prior to the pandemic, violence, negligence, and abuse have contributed to many deaths inside OC jails. There have already been five deaths this year, including two after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared. Despite Barnes’ stated commitment to “public safety” and providing “the best care” for those he incarcerates, this is not what he has been doing. This is not possible to do in cages. In the recent past, medical staff with the courage to come forward have filed suit blowing the whistle on the horrible treatment metered out by deputies.

Additionally, In multiple instances, the Orange County Grand Jury has lodged scathing indictments against OCSD about their utter lack of care for those they are responsible for.

For 2017 to 2018, the Grand Jury released a report entitled “​Preventable Deaths in Orange County Jails”​. The report opens: “…Over the last three years, 44% of custodial deaths in Orange County jails may have been preventable. Delays in treatment, failure to identify health threats at intake, failure to diagnose serious mental illness, and lack of timely referral to a healthcare professional have increased the chances that an [incarcerated person] will not make it out alive.”

For 2018 to 2019, the summary of “​The Silent Killer: Hypertension in Orange County’s Intake and Release Center” ​reads: “From January 23, 2016 through May 2, 2018 there were 28 custodial deaths, 15 of which had evidence of a prior cardiovascular history… Not all [incarcerated people] being booked into jail in Orange County have [standard vital sign measurement tests] performed… The Medical Triage Area at the Intake and Release Center is a high traffic area, averaging 150 [incarcerated people] per day. [Those in custody] are screened two at a time with no privacy.”

OCSD’s culture of abuse and misconduct led to a systemic failure to properly book evidence, leading to the possible wrongful conviction of many people in our community. The torrid informant scandal case, intentionally placing vulnerable people in harm’s way for political gain, was disappointingly dropped in recent days by the California Attorney General, leaving many struggling to make sense of this obvious injustice. The Department of Justice continues to investigate, but closed a separate investigation into OC jail conditions last year.

Despite all this malfeasance, OCSD continually receives further funding and salary raises from the OC Board of Supervisors. OCSD are offered more and more money to expand jail facilities that are empty under the guise of providing “the best care” for those incarcerated.

In tandem, the Orange County Sheriff’s Union continues to endorse and contribute to Supervisor candidates willing to vote in their favor, candidates that tow the racist line of “Tough on Crime”, the ableist line of “Deserving Poor”, the xenophobic line of “Illegal Immigration”.

What Barnes is doing is attempting to secure, build, and maintain power and wealth. Through the threat of violence and death, he is supporting the idea that some deserve care and compassion and others do not. More than 50% of those held in OC jails have not been convicted of any crime.

This week, attorney Richard Herman filed a $4 billion damage claim against Orange County on behalf of all incarcerated people in OC jails. The charge: those in custody have been unlawfully, unconstitutionally, and inhumanely subjected to conditions that expose them unnecessarily to the deadly virus. Earlier, Herman filed a federal motion seeking to shut down the jails to protect both those in custody and staff, but the judge declined to hear it.

In mid-March, California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye recommended requiring zero dollar bail amounts on many crimes, prohibitions on new arrests for non-violent crimes, and the release of non-violent and medically vulnerable people with ​less than 60 days​ on their sentence.

Our mercurial District Attorney Todd Spitzer lashed back publicly against these recommendations. “This will become a slippery slope for everybody,” Spitzer said. “If they’re doing it at the state level, they’ll do [releases] at the county jails… that’s why gun sales are going up.” Soon, however, Spitzer changed his tune and began working with OCSD to help determine who could be eligible for early release. Now, he’s swung back toward what is politically beneficial to him saying, “This is becoming a convenient excuse for [the Public Defender’s Office]… They’re, like, waving the COVID flag.”

The Sheriff approached Orange County Superior Court Judge Kirk Nakamura, requesting a court order laying out a plan of action for jails and county law enforcement during the pandemic, including a framework for early release – basically asking to be ordered to take this politically unpalatable step. Instead, Nakamura deferred responsibility back to Barnes, ruling that the Sheriff already had the authority to release people early.

Deprived of a liberal bogeyman to blame, and apparently in fear of losing a hard-earned “Tough on Crime” image, one cultivated over many years through the culture of violence and neglect, Barnes abandoned a conscientious path, releasing only those with 10 days or less remaining, citing his commitment to incarceration and punishment as a priority as he implemented this one-sixth measure.

We fear that the very values that conflate punishment, violence, and revenge with justice, that deny needed funding for community support and services, may desperately harm Orange County residents in irreparable ways.

What happens when members of the public do not follow orders to stay at home, to shelter in place? What happens to people experiencing houselessness? What happens to people who can’t afford citations for failure to isolate? What happens to people battling with substance abuse disorder during a pandemic? What happens to people with mental health diagnoses? What happens when people can’t afford their rent and the Sheriff arrives to evict them? What happens when we are arrested, afraid of how we’ll be treated inside?

What happens if we contract COVID-19?

Will we simply be locked up, segregated from society, left to die?

No one deserves this punishment. No one.

Everyone deserves care and compassion.


Free them all.

Gianni Castellanos lives in Huntington Beach and is a founding member of Transforming Justice Orange County


Editors note: To read a version of this Opinion post in Spanish, click here.

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