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This year between September and November, Californians will be forced to go to the polls to vote in a recall election that will determine if Governor Gavin Newsom remains in office. After six previous recall attempts, for the first time a coalition formed of Trump’s Republicans, anti-vaxxers, and Q-anon conspiracy theorists supporters have managed to obtain the 1.5 million signatures necessary to bring the recall efforts to the polls.
Angry with Governor Newsom’s quarantine mandates this group of Californians have lashed against the Governor for his efforts to help curb the spread of the coronavirus in the Golden State. Tragically, the Covid-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 600,00 people in the U.S. and it has ravished every corner of the world.
Safety measures set in place to help prevent the propagation of the coronavirus have been far from ideal – and understandably so. But in the Orange County jails incarcerated people have received no mercy. Subjected to cruel and unusual punishment in conditions, incarcerated people were forced to spent 23.5 hours a day alone inside of their designated cells during the pandemic’s peak from December through February. With one reported suicide and many people behind bars openly considering it amongst one another for the first time in their lives, the OC jails have become torture chambers where people must live in cells the size of small parking spaces. Concrete coffins designed to torment individuals physically and psychologically by keeping them trapped inside with no access to their families, the outdoors, or a hot meal. Under bright and blinding interrogation lights that are never turned off, the only forecasted weather conditioned inside of every cell is cold, cold, cold – no matter the season of the year. Incarcerated people are forced to eat ice frosted mystery meat sandwiches every day for lunch and dinner, where a person must wait for the ice to melt off the meat in order to consume only to discover that the meat is spoiled. As horrible as these conditions are and sound, they are only a scratch on the surface to issues that are far more disturbing and sinister. And that OC Sheriff Don Barnes would never publicly admit exist inside his jails.
Governor Newsom is not exempt from duly earned criticism. His response to the Covid pandemic in the California Department of Corrections failed because he allowed the CDC to operate as an independent body of government instead of personally taking charge and holding CDC officials accountable for their terrible response to the pandemic behind bars. The Governor has been far from perfect, but his efforts to stop the spread of Covid have shown promising results. Nevertheless, recallers are determined to spend millions in taxpayer money for a cause that will only hurt already struggling Californians. The recall is projected to cost Californians roughly $400 million.
In Orange County, Sheriff Don Barnes operates like a sheriff from the old west, with complete disregard for the lives of incarcerated people and the wellbeing of OC residents. He has used fearmongering as a tactic to justify his public defiance of a judge’s order demanding that the sheriff reduce or remove 50% of OC jail’s population from congregated housing areas. He lied to OC residents by claiming that everyone remaining in the OC jails were violent public safety threats when in fact a Voice of OC article, revealed that the top prosecuted charge in OC is possession of drugs. But it was imperative for Sheriff Barnes to convince residents that Orange County, the home of Disneyland had turned into Batman’s Gotham’s city. This was the only way that the sheriff could justify stealing millions of dollars in CARES Act funding from the people. Like an old school monster, he went to OC residents and told them they were in danger. Once they were scared, he told them he could protect them but that protection would come with a cost. A blatant act of extortion. Very few people however have called foul on his actions and Republican recallers have lauded him and have even gone as far as to encourage him to run for California governor.
More than 2,300 incarcerated people in OC jails have been infected with the coronavirus since the pandemic began. If the county jail system were a city, at some point it would have been the city with the highest infection rate in OC.
More than 40% of people behind bars in OC suffer from mental health challenges. So, when the lives of people who battle with diagnoses like schizophrenia, dementia, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and many others, are callously disregarded – what does this say about the sheriff in charge of overseeing these lives but most importantly what does it say about the people who openly support him?
Sheriff Barnes has received more than $350 million dollars, including local and state funds, to add 900 new jail beds to the empty James A. Musick facility near Irvine. The sheriff claims that this jail expansion will allow him to provide better services to incarcerated people with mental health challenges. But people cannot get the care they need in cages. Currently, inside the jails people with dementia are forced to live and sleep in their own urine and excrement. These human rights violations that are often reported by other incarcerated people are always ignored and energetically refuted by Sheriff Barnes to the media. It must be noted that Sheriff Barnes does not work inside the OC jails. Out of the four jails in operation, he is likely to visit one every year if at all. And when those visits take place, they are like a parade where people only witness great discipline and awe-inspiring performances of art.
But no one gets to see the ugly and horrifying acts that take place deep inside the belly of the beast, deep inside the chambers of doom and despair. We are all aware of what happens when OC deputies have community interactions with people who are in need of shelter and support such as in the case of Kurt Reinhold. And we have all seen what happens when frantic mothers or family members call police to address a mental health crisis at home. Instead of receiving help they suffer while they watch their loved ones riddled with bullets and left dead on the street. The institution of policing and jails and prisons are harmful – they do not provide community safety nor care.
The OC Sheriff’s Department cannot be trusted with the lives of human beings whose voices are censored by the voice behind the badge and the uniform. It is difficult enough for incarcerated people to self-advocate, let alone for people whose mental health conditions are so severe that they must often be reminded to eat. It is said that where there is smoke, there is fire, and the OC Sheriff’s Department has been burning for a long time.
Residents of OC must focus their energy on real problems not politically motivated recall efforts. Let’s hope that if a recall does in fact take place that it is against OC Sheriff Don Barnes and not against a governor who is doing everything he possibly can during a challenging and unprecedent time. For these reasons I encourage you all to vote no to recall Governor Gavin Newsom and mobilize to remove a sheriff that OC residents can do without.
Jose Armendariz is an incarcerated student, writer and [organizer]. His story and work has been covered and published in Voice of OC, Chispa, Jurist, CalMatters, LAist, and La Opinion.
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