California Sheriff Refuses to Release People From Jail as COVID Outbreak Rages

California Sheriff Chad Bianco recently made a splash in the conservative media after he told Riverside County officials that his department would not enforce local public health orders meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A viral video of his statement earned Bianco an interview on Fox News on May 8, where he said it was time for businesses to reopen despite a statewide stay-at-home order.

Bianco did not mention that the five jails he oversees in Riverside County have suffered one of the largest jail outbreaks of COVID-19 in California. A federal judge declared last month that his department “failed to take adequate precautions” to protect incarcerated people and ordered the department to clean up its act.

As of Thursday, there were 209 confirmed cases in the Riverside County jail system, up from 203 on Wednesday, according to the local public health department. The Riverside Sheriff’s Department said on Wednesday that 3,015 people are incarcerated within the system. At least two incarcerated people and two sheriff’s deputies have died from complications related to COVID-19, according to reports. The department said in an email that it has not released updates on how many jail employees contracted the virus since April 17, when Bianco said 71 employees had tested positive.

“If you don’t want to catch the virus while you’re in custody, don’t break the law,” Bianco reportedly said during an April press conference.

Compare those numbers to neighboring Los Angeles County, where 182 people currently held in county jails have tested positive, according to the L.A. County Sherriff’s Department. Under legal pressure, L.A. County jails ramped up their COVID-19 response and reduced their population from about 17,000 to fewer than 12,000 by late April with early release programs and other measures, according to the Vera Institute. In April, California’s statewide judicial system set bail for most misdemeanors and low-level felonies at $0 to prevent jails from becoming overcrowded with lower-income people awaiting trial as courts closed their doors due to the pandemic — a change many sheriffs opposed.

Across California and the nation, jails and prisons have scrambled to contain gruesome outbreaks of COVID-19, and many have taken modest steps to reduce the number of people incarcerated in order to make room for social distancing, often under court orders. Like other hardline sheriffs who bill themselves as “tough-on-crime,” Bianco has been defiant, defending his department’s handling of the outbreak and resisting calls to make room for social distancing after people with health problems complained about being incarcerated in crowded cells and dormitories. In public statements and on social media, Bianco said he will not release anyone due to COVID-19, even if they have pre-existing conditions that put them at risk of major complications from COVID-19.

When asked if any people were released to make more space for social distancing within the jails, Bianco’s department said in an email, “we have not released anyone based off of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Bianco has consistently argued that releasing people from jail would endanger public safety. However, advocates for decarceration point out that the opposite is true: COVID-19 outbreaks within jails are a major threat to public safety, and the more people who are incarcerated, the worse that threat is. Jail staff go home to their families every day, increasing the risk of community spread.

Meanwhile, activists point to data showing that, in 2016, nearly 60 percent of those held in Riverside jails were awaiting trial and had not been convicted and sentenced for a crime, suggesting that many people are currently incarcerated because they cannot afford bail or their court appearances have been delayed by the pandemic.

In a Facebook post responding to letters from activists and family members, Bianco said people are incarcerated in jail because there is probable cause to believe that they committed a crime and a judge decided they should stand trial. He suggested that if people want to commit crimes and be released from jail, they should do so in Los Angeles or San Francisco, where they have a better chance of being released. Family members of those locked up have asked: Who made Bianco judge and jury?

“Who makes him judge now?” said Lisa Matus, who has two sons awaiting trial in a Riverside jail, in an April interview with the Los Angeles Times. “You’re supposed to house and protect them, and your staff.”

The department claimed all prisoners are provided with surgical masks, unlimited soap and cleaning supplies “free of charge,” and that they have been instructed on how to properly wear the masks and sanitize common areas. According to the statement, all staff have access to face masks and protective gowns and receive COVID-19 prevention training based on federal guidelines.

Truthout has so far been unable to reach people inside the jail or their family members to confirm whether these supplies are indeed available. However, it should be noted that providing personal protective equipment is not the same as ensuring at least 6 feet of social distancing between incarcerated individuals.

Jordanna Wong-Omshehe, the public policy fellow at Starting Over Inc., a nonprofit that provides services to formerly incarcerated people in Riverside County, said Bianco’s Facebook post was the only response advocates and family members got from the sheriff after weeks of pressuring county officials for more information about what is going on inside the county jails.

“We are the public — he works for us — and I think as a nonprofit serving those that are directly impacted by him and his decisions, that it’s absolutely ludicrous that we have to go to the media and go online to see what he is saying, because we are his constituents, and he is refusing to speak to his own community,” Wong-Omshehe told Truthout.

The outbreak sent family members scrambling for information, but Wong-Omshehe said currently Bianco has offered little transparency. For example, the Riverside Sheriff’s Department has not publicly broken down the number of infections in each of its five jails, making it difficult for observers to identify hotspots. In an email, the department said “we have not and will not release” information on how many people held in the jails have been tested for COVID-19, a decision made by medical staff.

Unless testing is widespread, the number of cases reported by the local health department may be an undercount. Wong-Omshehe said family members and the public need “real-time updates” from inside the jails. Along with nursing homes, jails and prisons have become COVID-19 hotspots nationwide because social distancing is physically impossible under the conditions of confinement, making incarcerated people some of the most impacted by the disease. Black and Brown people are also disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 as well as policing, and Wong-Omshehe provided data showing that while Black people make up 7 percent of the Riverside population, they account for 21 percent of arrests.

“We have community members locked up right now, and we have family members on the outside who are completely in the dark,” Wong-Omshehe said.

Wong-Omshehe said local activists have pushed back, holding rallies in cars in support of incarcerated people, sending letters to Bianco and county officials, and launching the #ReleaseRiverside social media campaign. Similar campaigns have erupted in cities across the United States as COVID-19 spread through jails and prisons as well as immigration jails, where 25 hunger strikes have been documented since March alone.

Some of these campaigns have seen some success in convincing sheriffs and prison wardens to improve conditions behind bars and reduce the number of people incarcerated as COVID-19 has spread, particularly in cities like New York City and New Orleans where activists are buoyed by consistent media coverage and journalists have been reporting on dismal conditions inside jails for years. In many cases, civil rights lawyers have filed lawsuits demanding judges intervene as outbreaks in prisons and jails turn deadly.

Yet Wong-Omshehe said local media coverage of the outbreak in Riverside jails has been scant and largely focused on Bianco’s statements, making it difficult for activists to make their case. This raises serious questions about hundreds of prisons and jails in rural and more conservative counties that are currently facing outbreaks, but where journalists and civil rights attorneys have yet to train their eyes. In West Virginia, for example, only one prison has instituted facility-wide COVID-19 testing, and only after the governor stepped in.

In Riverside, it was civil rights lawyers and a federal judge who were able to intervene. Four years ago, a federal district court found that medical and mental health care in Riverside county jails did not meet minimum standards under the Constitution, after the Prison Law Office filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners. The court now oversees a consent decree that governs how medical care is provided in the jails.

Last month, the Prison Law Office filed an emergency motion in the case to force Riverside jails to institute social distancing and provide hygiene supplies. A federal judge ordered Bianco’s department to come up with a plan for preventing the spread of COVID-19, and court experts advised the jails to take “rapid action” to reduce the population density and protect the medically vulnerable population, according to the legal aid group. An initial plan was submitted by April 17, but the judge rejected it as inadequate and asked for another.

The deadline for the latest prevention plan passed a week ago, and Wong-Omshehe said that if a plan has been submitted, it has not been made public. After a mediation with the Prison Law Office, the county agreed to provide crucial information to the court and its medical supervisors, including the number of tests provided and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths among incarcerated people and staff. Bianco told local media that he does not plan on making any of that information public.

“We have no information on what’s going on inside besides what we hear from people with incarcerated family members,” said Andrea Smith, an activist with Riverside All of Us or None, an advocacy group for the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. “We just need some light shined on him.”