Op-ed: LA County fails to protect incarcerated population’s rights, health in pandemic
Feb. 17, 2021 3:25 p.m.
Imagine spending the year 2020 in jail. Over and over again, you are put at risk of contracting COVID-19 by a jail system that fails to provide social distancing, testing or personal protective equipment. Almost a year passes, and were it not for Los Angeles County’s cruel indifference to the danger of COVID-19 behind bars, you might have already had your day in court. The outside world starts doubling up on masks because the virus is becoming more infectious, yet you fail to convince the jail to give you the basic supplies you need to wash the one mask you have been holding on to for months. You hear that others in the jail have died. You are needlessly put into quarantine, forcing you to miss court dates. Your trial is supposed to be imminent, but it keeps getting pushed off. This detention before trial, plagued with prolonged wait times, coerciveness and excessive bails even before the pandemic, seems like it might go on forever.
For many people in LA County jails, this nightmare is a reality. In LA County jails alone, more than 15,000 people continue to be incarcerated, and 13 people have died from COVID-19. Despite the increased risks associated with COVID-19 and the jail system’s utter failure to protect the people in its custody, people are spending more time in LA County jails than before the pandemic. A recent UCLA report shows that 41% of people held pretrial were in jail for six months or longer as of September compared to 35% in January of last year. These delays for incarcerated people threaten their constitutional rights to a speedy trial and access to counsel, and expose them to a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.
More than 400 accounts from people in LA County jails, written between June and September, show that the sheriff’s department has failed to minimize exposure to COVID-19 in jails, causing people to be needlessly quarantined. Between March and November, between 9% and 20% of the total jail population was quarantined in the jails at any given time. Eighty-eight percent of the people we heard from in the jails said they were subject to quarantine at least once because of a COVID-19 exposure, while 64% reported missing a court date since the start of the pandemic. Moreover, most people reported being placed in quarantine several times, and many were quarantined a staggering five to seven times.
These quarantines in turn have led to trial delays by making it difficult, if not impossible, for people to communicate with counsel and appear for trial dates. In the report, Deputy Public Defender of LA County William Hayes recounts how one of his clients was not transported to court for about two months because of multiple quarantines, leading to a delayed court date. What’s worse, on Jan. 29, LA Superior Court Presiding Judge Eric Taylor delayed trials yet again, ensuring that people wishing to have their day in court will be forced to remain in deadly conditions for at least another month, while the backlog of cases continues to grow.
These prolonged wait times, combined with the recklessness with which people are being held in custody, pose a serious risk to the health of people awaiting trial, primarily poor individuals and people of color. Of the people who submitted written accounts, 94% said they remained in jail because they could not afford their bail amount. These statistics highlight that people who are poor are subject to dangerous conditions in overcrowded jails, with the possibility of long-term health impacts or even death. Meanwhile, people who can afford their bail amount can be released pretrial and await their court date on the outside.
Prolonged detentions also heavily affect Black and Latino communities, who make up the largest percentage of the jail population and often face unaffordable and higher bail amounts than their white counterparts. For Black individuals, prolonged detentions jumped to approximately 44% by September, while white and Hispanic populations saw smaller but similar increases.
To make matters worse, incarcerated people are now no longer being explicitly prioritized for vaccinations statewide. The longer the state and county refuse to prioritize the vaccination of people in the jails, the more people will suffer serious health consequences from COVID-19 as they continue to be exposed to COVID-19-positive individuals because the LA County Sheriff’s Department refuses to change its protocol to keep people safe. As this continues, people will continue to experience exponential delays in bringing their cases to a close. The only way to move forward and regain some control of this crisis is for county stakeholders to create a comprehensive release plan for people who are incarcerated so they can await their trial safely on the outside. If this does not happen, the county will surely see more deaths inside jails that could have been prevented.
Padilla is a third-year law student at the UCLA School of Law.