Sheriff contends Pitchess inmates are purposefully infecting themselves

FILE PHOTO: A Los Angeles County jail. Photo courtesy of LASD.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva alleged Pitchess Detention Center inmates are purposefully infecting themselves with the coronavirus, saying they’re sharing water bottles, masks and cups to transmit the disease among one another, during a news conference Monday.

Using a video taken from the inside of the North County Correctional Facility during the presentation, Villanueva showed three different ways officials suspected inmates of sharing the virus, beginning first with inmates sharing water from a hot-water dispenser.

The other examples reportedly show inmates drinking from the same cup and breathing in the same mask in order to infect themselves, Villanueva said. Within the jail there is room for social distancing, which the inmates are not practicing, he said. 

He said this led to a spike of 21 inmates becoming infected in the particular module shown on video, which was in the PDC’s maximum-security North County Correctional Facility.

“There’s a reason why these people are behind bars to begin with, because to then imperil not only their own safety, but the safety of their fellow inmates who do not want to participate in this behavior,” said Villanueva. “It also endangers the safety of all the personnel, both the professional staff and the sworn staff who are responsible for maintaining the (security) and the control of the entire jail environment.” 

Villanueva said the inmates are doing these actions due to their “mistaken belief … that if they tested positive that there was a way to force our hand and somehow release more inmates out of our jail environment.” 

“And that’s not going to happen,” he added. 

In phone interviews last week, several inmates told The Signal they were in an area of the jail affected by the outbreak with insufficient space for social distancing, and had signed two petitions demanding testing for themselves. 

David Lopez, a 28-year-old inmate in the 4B dormitory at NCCF, during a phone call with The Signal on Monday, denied the allegations made by Villanueva, at least for his specific dorm. 

“There’s no rumor about a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Lopez,. “No one that I know here, and I know that for a fact, that’s been trying to infect themselves at all.” 

Lopez did say that his interaction within the jail was largely restricted to the 70-or-so men in his dormitory and could not speak for the other modules within the prison. He added that he still believes that nearly every person, including himself, has been experiencing symptoms. 

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Villanueva said, has taken precautions to reduce the spread of the virus within jails by screening during transfer, reducing the jail population by 5,000 inmates, putting hand sanitizer throughout the jail facilities and asking staff to wear personal protective equipment.

A screenshot from the video that allegedly shows inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center exchanging a bottle in order to share the virus between one another. Photo courtesy of LASD.

“And we have cleaning crews going through, scrubbing everything repeatedly, particularly our high-traffic areas.”

In April, a group of advocates including Justice-LA filed a class-action lawsuit against LASD to compel the department to release more inmates. The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Patrisse Cullors, said Villanueva’s Monday morning statement was meant to “demonize incarcerated people.”

“Contrary to the sheriff’s allegations, what I’ve been hearing from prisoners is that there isn’t enough soap, there is no hot water,” said Cullors in the statement. “Overall, these statements from the sheriff are irresponsible.”

“The allegations made by the sheriff deserve a full investigation and raise serious questions about the infection control practices at (L.A. County Jails),” she added.

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