Orange County Sheriff Prepares to Make Case for Keeping Inmates Behind Bars

January 7, 2021 Updated: January 7, 2021

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department will present its plan to mitigate a COVID-19 jail surge to an appeals judge on Jan. 8 as it continues its fight to keep more than 1,000 inmates behind bars.

“The sheriff believes that his plan is what is best for the Orange County community,” department spokesman Sgt. Dennis Breckner told The Epoch Times on Jan. 7. “We have and will continue to take steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Orange County jails.”

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes will present his pandemic strategy after Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson ordered him on Dec. 11 to release 50 percent of county inmates to allow for greater physical distancing.

The order came after a lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of inmates who claim they are vulnerable to COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions.

Since the order, Barnes has expressed high concern over freeing the 1,800 inmates, warning of a high risk many of them would re-offend.

“Many of these inmates are in pre-trial status for, or have been convicted of, violent crimes and will be released back into the community,” Barnes said. “This order puts our community at substantial risk and does not take into account the impact on the victims of these crimes.”

The sheriff appealed the order but was denied on Dec. 29.

Now, Wilson will ask Barnes a list of questions on Jan. 8 about how the sheriff handled the outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic in March, as well as how he is currently being advised by the OC Health Care Agency.

As of Jan. 7, there were 1,062 COVID-positive inmates in Orange County jails; six of those people are in hospital. Orange County jails currently hold 3,366 Inmates. Breckner noted that despite the high number of positive tests, most are asymptomatic.

So far, one Orange County inmate has died from COVID-19 complications. Eddie Lee Anderson, 68, died in the hospital on Dec. 18 after being transferred from the Theo Lacy Facility on Dec. 13 for treatment. Anderson was arrested in 2019 in connection to a 1976 murder.

Corene Kendrick, an attorney for the ACLU, previously said that the sheriff has tools to keep released inmates in check, such as ankle monitors, home confinement, and monitoring.

“The point is, and I think the judge got this, there’s a bigger public safety risk of having an outbreak of COVID-19 in the jail system when the county’s hospitals are already at the breaking point with skyrocketing infections,” Kendrick said.

“You really don’t want a bunch of incarcerated people coming into the hospitals. It’s a giant production. Everyone has to come with an officer. It becomes a strain on the community hospitals that is not needed.”

Breckner also noted that the prison outbreak is simply following the large public rise in CCP virus cases currently overwhelming hospitals.

“The Orange County Jail population mirrors what we are seeing outside of the jail walls, a rise in COVID-19 cases,” Breckner said. “[Our mitigations efforts include] physically distancing, spreading inmates out throughout the facility so they are not housed so closely together, quarantining as necessary, requirement of the use of PPE by every staff member in the facility and inmates outside of their cells, and regular testing.”

It’s not known if the hearing on Jan. 8 will result in Barnes being legally forced to release the inmates, or if there will be further legal options for the sheriff’s department to pursue.

Follow Drew on Twitter: @DrewVanVoorhis