This image was drawn by a person incarcerated in an OC jail. Credit: K.S.K.C.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has been an isolating time for everyone in Orange County (OC), but especially for our community members who are incarcerated in Orange County jails. In-person, non-legal jail visitation stopped in March 2020. People incarcerated in OC jails haven’t seen their loved ones’ faces for close to a year, even though the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) has the funding and technology to provide video visitation. 

Calls from the jail phone service, Global Tel Link (GTL), are extremely costly for families already struggling with the pandemic, and the jail only provides two free, five-minute calls per week. 

Recently, people have been denied all programs such as dayroom and yard time. For much of the pandemic, people have been quarantined in their cells for 23.5 hours a day, meeting the definition of prolonged solitary confinement. 

People incarcerated in OC jails have been advocating for improved conditions since the start of the pandemic, and incarcerated advocates have organized multiple hunger strikes over the past year, hoping it will convince OCSD to allow them to see their loved ones.

The [Incarcerated Peoples’] Welfare Fund Could Provide Any Needed Funding for Video Visitation Programs.

Under state law, OCSD must have an [Incarcerated Peoples’] Welfare Fund (Cal. Pen. Code § 4025), which they are legally required to spend “primarily for the benefit, education, and welfare of the [incarcerated people] confined within the jail.” This fund is fed by the profits the jail makes on things sold to incarcerated people through the commissary store, which sells much-needed, overpriced items such as snacks and personal hygiene products.

A 2011 internal audit found that OCSD spends around 96% of their IWF on staff support and staff salaries, and this pattern has continued. Although OCSD claims that these salaries support staff who run enrichment and rehabilitation programs (Correctional Programs Unit), incarcerated people report little to no access to rehabilitative programming, especially during COVID when these programs are restricted or completely stopped. Less than 4% was spent on recreation and library. Less than 1% was spent on services and supplies. The fund’s total revenue was about $5 million.

Video visitation is crucial to the welfare of individuals confined within Orange County jails, especially when all other visitation has been halted. OCSD should be using IWF to ensure video visitation for people inside.

Orange County has CARE funds that could also support video visitation.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, is a stimulus package passed by Congress to help municipalities pay for expenses which arise out of the COVID-19 pandemic. In allocating CARES Act funds, OC leaders have spent more on the sheriff than on public health workersOrange County received $554 million in CARES Act funds; $93 million went to payroll at the Sheriff’s Department, while $58 million was spent on Health Care Agency employees. Yet people inside OC jails say none of the sheriff’s funding has done anything to improve the dire situation in the jails.

Orange County has not been transparent about CARES Act spending. It was recently discovered Orange County officials secretly signed contracts dispensing hundreds of thousands of tax-paying dollars from the CARES budget to hire a PR firm. At least $93 million of the pandemic relief funds were spent on Sheriff’s Department costs by the end of October. The county claimed that the funding was given to the sheriff to cover costs ranging from public safety payroll, to adding shields and barriers for social distancing at facilities, to buying cold meals for incarcerated people to allow social distancing. Yet people inside have no opportunity to social distance according to an ongoing lawsuit brought by the ACLU alleging dangerous and inhumane conditions during COVID-19.

In addition to the CARES funding available, President Biden recently announced his American Rescue Plan which will disseminate funds to jails in light of the COVID pandemic. These funds are an additional source of funding which can cover the cost of video visitation.

Video visitation is necessary to the welfare of incarcerated people.

COVID has brought danger, death, and draconian jail policies to incarcerated people. Over the course of the pandemic, people have been exposed to COVID and denied medical attention. New policies that fail to keep people safe impose additional restrictions on the already cruel conditions of jail. For much of the pandemic, many folks on the inside were confined for 23.5 hours of the day, meeting the definition for prolonged solitary confinement. Data shows that recidivism rates increase with time spent in solitary confinement, with studies attributing a 15%-25% increase for people who had experienced solitary confinement compared to those in the general population. Other studies have demonstrated that visitation has a significant impact on recidivism, and that a lack of social interaction can negatively impact reentry.

Jose Armendariz, an individual living inside one of Orange County’s jails, wrote a poem, “Humans in Name Only,” depicting his experience inside.

Humans in Name Only

As I speak, I am only allowed twenty minutes a day out of my cell

A cell that is the size of a tiny parking space

In this time I must shower and use the phone

The last time I saw my family was a year ago

We are only fed sandwiches that oftentimes contain spoiled meat

If you think this is bad, I’ll just say this

You’re only hearing what I feel comfortable sharing

We are subjected to cruel and unusual punishment

If we are caught speaking to the media or people from advocacy groups 

The retaliation is swift and heavy handed

If you care about our mental health, Sheriff Barnes

Why do you subject us to such cruelties?

How is putting me in a tiny cell for 24 hours a day supposed to help my mental health?

There are people who have never in their life considered suicide 

Openly considering it now

For the first time 

Is a testament to the harm you are bringing on already fragile minds 

Jose Armendariz, an individual living inside one of Orange County’s jails

Dr. Craig Haney, professor of psychology and an expert on solitary confinement, urges that medical isolation to prevent the spread of COVID-19 should never resemble punitive solitary confinement, due to the significant risk of grave harm. Properly conducted, medical isolation should be temporary and mitigate risks of the harmful effects of isolation by allowing access to devices for video and audio calls, enhanced medical and mental health services, and adequate out of cell time. He recommends that incarcerated people who are medically isolated should be given daily access to phones or tablets to maintain social connection, preferably with video and audio capabilities and at no or low cost. See Campbell v. Barnes (30-2020-01141117-CU-WM-CXC).

Video visitation is possible and necessary.

People on the inside have been asking for visitation with their families since the beginning of the pandemic, but have not had a meaningful option available to them for close to a year now. Video visitation is necessary both for the immediate health and well-being of incarcerated folks as well as for their long term welfare. Maintaining family connections provide emotional support in the short term, and can significantly impact reentry prospects in the long term, contributing to public safety.

Orange County’s jails already use video technology to conduct remote court hearings and OCSD has the funding to provide this minimal, necessary service to Orange County community members in their custody.

People like Jose in OC jails have gone almost a year without seeing their families. Five minute phone calls are not enough to maintain meaningful connections with their families, and they are having difficulties coping with the prolonged isolation. OCSD has the funds to implement video visitation from the CARES Act and the IWF fund, as well as the video technology that would allow people to finally see the faces of their loved ones. OCSD must swiftly implement video visitation so that incarcerated people are able to connect with their friends and family.

Solange Fortenbach: Solange is a JD candidate at UCI Law, having previously received her Bachelor’s Degree from New York University. She advocates for the rights of people incarcerated in Orange County jails as a legal extern at the ACLU and leader of the Letter Writing Project at UCI.

Honoka Ozeki: Honoka is a JD candidate at UCI Law. She advocates for the rights of people incarcerated in Orange County jails as a part of the Letter Writing Project at UCI.

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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