Last Updated 1:30 p.m.
The first Coronavirus death has occurred at Orange County jails today just as Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes is fighting a judge’s order to potentially release half of the people incarcerated after a Coronavirus outbreak continues to wreak havoc in the jails.
The death occurred today at the Theo Lacy Jail.
Eddie Lee Anderson, a 68-year-old inmate died at 5 a.m. this morning of medical complications after testing positive for the virus. Anderson was booked into jail last year on suspicion of homicide, according to a press release put out by the Orange County Sheriff’s department.
Carrie Braun, Public Information Officer for the Sheriff’s department and the Coroner’s office, would not comment on the circumstance behind the death, deferring to the department’s press release.
It appears that Orange County supervisors have yet to hear details as well.
“This is the first I’ve heard of it. I don’t know details but of course I’m saddened. I think the sheriff has done a very good (job) to only have the first death now,” Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner told the Voice of OC on Friday morning.
626 people currently have the Coronavirus in Orange County Jails, according to the sheriff’s department.
The death comes as a major coronavirus outbreak hits the county jails, after Barnes’ attorneys reassured courts that his precautions against Covid-19 have made the jails much safer for inmates than the outside community.
“Petitioners have not established that there is any location that is safer than the Orange County jails,” said Donald Kevin Dunn, a deputy county counsel representing Barnes at a court hearing on Dec. 7.
Barnes’ attorneys compared the situation in OC jail cells to New Zealand, which has eliminated coronavirus spread among its 4 million residents.
“Once a cell block is COVID-free—much as seen in New Zealand—that group [of inmates] may interact within normal jail operating rules (with, of course, PPE and distancing) because they are not at risk of infecting each other,” county lawyers wrote to the court last month on behalf of the sheriff.
Barnes’ attorneys then pointed to an article about New Zealand’s success in stamping out the virus – allowing life and the economy to return back to normal with almost no virus spread – after an early lockdown, public compliance with restrictions, and financial support for people forced out of work.
Newport Beach council members voted this morning at a special meeting to unanimously file a brief supporting Barnes’ challenge to the order with many residents writing in support of the action.
“There’s no other way to say it except that this ruling is dangerous to the health and safety of individuals in Orange County and it sets a dangerous precedent,” said Councilman Kevin Muldoon. “It must be fought by all of us.”
On Dec. 11 the Orange County Superior Court ordered Barnes to transfer 50% out of group living areas after Judge Peter Wilson found that the sheriff failed to distance medically vulnerable inmates.
“[Barnes’] acts, and failures to act, constitute ‘conduct that may unnecessarily expose inmates in his custody to significant risks to their health and safety,” the ruling reads.
Sarah Kahn is a member and volunteer with Transforming Justice OC, a community organization that works to end incarceration in Orange County, said there is a reason the judge ordered the release.
“People are in danger because the jail failed to protect them and the people incarcerated in Orange County jails are our neighbors too and their lives and safety are just as important. A jail sentence shouldn’t be at death sentence,” Kahn said.
The order is a result of a lawsuit filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union alleging that people in jail should be released because of the risk of serious illness and death from the Coronavirus.
Barnes has criticized the order stating that the release of people charged with violent offenses would put the community at risk. The sheriff is challenging the order and his department is in a process of an appeal.
“I have considered their release and made my decision. These serious offenders must be kept in custody,” Barnes said in a statement Wednesday.
In his statement, he encouraged other groups to file a brief in support of his appeal and defended his department’s mitigation of the Coronavirus on the jail population.
Newport Beach council members obliged him.
“My understanding from members of the sheriff’s department is that they plan on filing their appeal by Monday at the latest and so we would be asked to file our amicus brief by Tuesday or Wednesday, the latest of next week,” said Councilman Will O’Neill. “It strikes me that I’ve heard from a handful of cities that they are considering joining ours.”
District Attorney Todd Spitzer also criticized the court order in a statement.
“The solution is simple: don’t break the law and you won’t end up in jail,” reads Spitzer’s statement. “If the Sheriff appeals this ruling – and I hope he does – the District Attorney’s Office will file an amicus brief with our data which demonstrates just how dangerous this decision is.”
While elected officials criticize the order by the judge, some Orange County residents have been criticizing jailhouse conditions for years.
In 2018, the county grand jury found that jail staff failed to notice and document health issues, assigned people to cells with others who had contagious diseases, and pointed out other issues in dozens of deaths during incarceration.
“Over the last three years, 44% of custodial deaths in Orange County jails may have been preventable,” the grand jury wrote.
Nick Gerda contributed to the reporting in this article.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.