ACLU Sues Orange County Sheriff, Demanding Release of Inmates During COVID-19 Pandemic

May 1, 2020 Updated: May 1, 2020

SANTA ANA (CNS)—The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a federal lawsuit on April 30 against the Orange County sheriff to force him and the county to reduce the jails population, to better implement social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The lawsuit, filed in Santa Ana, demands the immediate release of “vulnerable and disabled” inmates, improvements to social distancing, increases in care, testing, and personal protective equipment.

The sheriff’s department on April 30 reported 122 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Three deputies have also contracted the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as the novel coronavirus, but have fully recovered.

Sheriff Don Barnes told the Orange County Board of Supervisors on April 28 that he has reduced the jail population by 45 percent since last month, when the state issued its stay-at-home order.

In a statement, Barnes said he has “implemented extraordinary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and preserve jail operations. These measures include the release of a limited amount of sentenced low-level offenders.”

Barnes said the jail population has declined from 5,303 inmates on March 7 to 2,911 inmates on April 28.

“Today’s jail population occupies only 39 percent of our jail’s actual capacity of just over 7,400 beds,” Barnes said. “I will continue to take measures needed to ensure the capacity is available to maintain safe operations and preserve our ability to house criminal offenders.

“At this moment, the early release of specified low-level offenders and the actions by the courts provide the capacity to meet our current needs.”

Barnes said he “must also ensure the safety of the law-abiding public” when releasing jail inmates.

“I am not supportive of extensive preemptive releases that go beyond what is necessary to keep the jail and community safe,” Barnes said.

“I am confident that the measures we continue to take in the jails meet our obligation to provide for the safety of both inmates and staff.”

According to the ACLU, Daniel Parker, a UC Irvine assistant professor of public health and epidemiology, is warning that the number of COVID-19 cases in the jails could quadruple by next week.

The ACLU alleges the disability rights of inmates are being violated.

“The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has repeatedly failed its obligation to protect the safety of people in its custody,” said Jacob Reisberg, a jail conditions advocate at the ACLU.

“Under normal circumstances, this lack of care is shameful—but during COVID-19, it is catastrophic.”

The ACLU claims that more than 500 inmates are “medically vulnerable” or disabled, and should be released.

Among the plaintiffs are Don Wagner, a 68-year-old cancer survivor who claims he is vulnerable when he has to go get his blood pressure and thyroid levels checked, and that he is only given one small bar of soap a week with which to clean himself.

Another plaintiff is 64-year-old Cynthia Campbell, who has rheumatoid arthritis, and claims she cannot maintain 6 feet of distance from others when she goes for treatments.

Named plaintiff Melissa Ahlman, 32, fears contracting the disease, and passing it on to her 7-month-old baby when she pumps milk for her. She said she has to wait in “crowded areas” with sick inmates when delivering the milk to nurses.

“I wonder what will happen if I get sick, and it spreads to my baby through my milk,” Ahlman said. “And I worry that I will get sick in here, and not be able to come home to her.”

The lawsuit demands a plan be developed and monitored by a public health expert to reduce the jails population.

Laguna Hills Drops Hotel Lawsuit

Also on April 30, Laguna Hills officials announced that they have dismissed their lawsuit seeking to block the county from using a state and federal program to house transients infected with COVID-19 at a hotel in the city.

The dismissal of the lawsuit came on the day officials were scheduled to argue for a preliminary injunction.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Delaney on April 20 rejected the city’s temporary restraining order request to block the use of the 76-bed Laguna Hills Inn at 23061 Avenida de la Carlota as part of Project Roomkey.

City officials said they decided to drop the lawsuit after receiving correspondence from Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett and county CEO Frank Kim that offered “specific assurances” about the project.

Officials said they were assured it would only be temporary, and will close within 60 days of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “safer at home” order ending.

Officials were also assured about “security protocols and medical staffing.”

Kim said only one transient was staying at the hotel as of April 30.

There are 139 transients housed in hotels as part of Project Roomkey in Orange County, officials said. Of those, 122 are considered at a high risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19, due to age or underlying health issues, and 17 are infected.

Officials were using the hotels to safely quarantine transients infected with the virus because they cannot properly socially distance in the county’s shelters, or while living on the streets.


The Epoch Times refers to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, as the CCP virus because the Chinese Communist Party’s cover-up and mismanagement allowed the virus to spread throughout China and create a global pandemic.