A coronavirus outbreak has exploded in Orange County jails, with one out of every three inmates currently infected, as Sheriff Don Barnes faces questions from a judge who ordered him to move half of all inmates out of group living areas.

When the outbreak was first detected four week ago, 74 inmates in the jails’ general population were infected, sheriff officials said at the time.

That’s now ballooned.

As of Wednesday, 1,077 general population inmates were currently infected, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

One inmate has died from the jail outbreak and four are currently hospitalized with Covid-19, said Sgt. Dennis Breckner, a spokesman for the sheriff. Most of the infected inmates do not have symptoms, he added.

The outbreak comes as Barnes pushes back on a Dec. 11 court order requiring him to move half of the inmate population out of group living areas. Barnes appealed the order from Judge Peter Wilson, saying it would release dangerous criminals into the community, but lost the appeal.

A majority of Orange County cities joined Newport Beach in supporting Barnes’ appeal.

On Friday, Judge Wilson plans to question Barnes’ office about efforts to stem the outbreak and decide what will happen next.

Barnes wants the judge to look at every inmate’s charges and decide for himself who should be released. 

The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit, wants the court to appoint a criminal justice expert to do the review.

Wilson, for his part, has ordered Barnes to provide details under seal about every inmate, including their charges and medical vulnerabilities. And he sent a list of questions he plans to ask Barnes’ office at Friday’s hearing, including what advice he’s received from medical officials at the Orange County Health Care Agency on how to slow the spread of Covid in the jails.

Sheriff officials say they’ve been proactive in spacing out inmates to protect their health and safety.

“Obviously, part of our efforts to stop the spread of Covid in the jail is to space inmates out. And we’ve done just that, and we’re taking steps to hope to stop the spread,” Breckner told Voice of OC in an interview Wednesday.

“We’ve done that from the beginning, which is why for the longest time we had zero general population inmates with Covid,” he added. “We are doing and will continue to do everything we can to stop the spread.”

“The sheriff is prepared to tell the judge what our mitigation efforts have been and will be moving forward,” Breckner said.

ACLU attorneys say the sheriff has fallen far short of what he’s obligated to do, and that state prison officials have offered to receive local inmates to help create more space in local hails.

“The few things [Barnes] said that he was looking into doing to try to reduce the [jail] population are woefully inadequate,” said Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU’s national prison project, who is working on the OC case.

“Sheriff Barnes has been delaying in complying with the court’s order that he come up with a comprehensive plan,” she added. “And his refusal to develop an appropriate plan shows that he is not going to be capable of doing this, and that our request that the court use an expert in these matters to develop a plan is I think where we’re headed now.”

Wilson issued his mid-December order after finding the sheriff failed in his duty to protect medically vulnerable inmates with social distancing.

“[Barnes’] deliberate indifference to the substantial risk of serious harm from COVID-19 infection to…medically vulnerable people in [his] custody violates their rights under the California Constitution,” he wrote in his 32-page ruling.

“[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 adds.

In response, Barnes criticized the order as putting community members at risk.

“We are evaluating the order, its impacts and our options for appeal,” Barnes said in a statement.

“If the order stands, it will result in the release of more than 1,800 inmates. Many of these inmates are in pre-trial status for, or have been convicted of, violent crimes and will be released back into the community. This order puts our community at substantial risk and does not take into account the impact on the victims of these crimes.”

In a footnote on page 29 of his decision, Judge Wilson wrote that Barnes didn’t have to release the inmates, but could transfer them to some other type of custody, at the sheriff’s discretion.

In his ruling, Wilson found that Barnes “has failed to reduce the jail population sufficiently to ensure appropriate social distancing,” and “has abused his discretion in failing to consider for release all medically vulnerable inmates, including those with disabilities.”

When he issued his December order, Wilson said the sheriff did not dispute the fact that current jail conditions put inmates who are medically vulnerable to Covid-19 “at substantially greater risk” from a coronavirus infection than the overall inmate population.

“This is disability discrimination,” Wilson wrote in his ruling.

In response, Barnes has said the order would release dangerous criminals to the streets and that he would fight the order in order to protect the public. The ACLU contends that under Barnes’ current criteria, people arrested for shoplifting would not get released.

There were 3,378 inmates in Orange County’s jail system as of Thursday, according to sheriff officials.

Among them, 1,120 inmates had current Covid infections as of Wednesday. The vast majority of them – 1,077 – were in the general population and were under medical isolation and quarantine, Breckner said. And 43 of the current infections were among newly booked inmates.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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