‘We’re packed in like sardines’: Pitchess inmates talk about living in an outbreak

Inmates taking part in agricultural programs. Courtesy photo, the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department.
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By Tammy Murga & Caleb Lunetta

The temperature hit the mid-90s while about 75 men walked the yard at Pitchess Detention Center.

With no water available, the inmates waited outside as Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department staff disinfected their jail dorm.

“I was down for four days. I had severe body aches, troubling breathing, sweating profusely with cold sweats, and I didn’t have the energy to get up to even use the restroom,” said David Lopez, a 28-year-old inmate at North County Correctional Facility in Castaic. “I have not been tested.”

Lopez is serving a two-year sentence for assault. (He said he was currently being held at Pitchess Detention Center, where NCCF is located, due to an executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom that froze transfers to state prison.) On Thursday, he could walk down the tightly packed aisles of his 90-man dorm area, push past men coughing into their hands and lay down on his bunk bed and stare at the other inmates lying on their beds, unable to get up, he said.

“Everyone has the same symptoms,” Lopez added.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officials have said 1,736 men have been placed under quarantine, or have been told they have had close contact of 10 minutes or more with a person currently under observation. They are the majority of the 2,000 total men who have been quarantined at Pitchess Detention Center as a whole. Data available online indicates that figure represents about one-quarter of the 8,000 or so inmates housed in one of the four Castaic facilities.

The L.A. County Department of Public Health reported Friday that Pitchess Detention Center has a total of six staff and 19 inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19, and North County Correctional Facility, the maximum-security jail on PDC’s campus, has two staff members and 122 inmates who tested positive for COVID-19.

When asked for comment about the matter, the county Sheriff’s Department was unavailable Friday. Earlier this week they had said, through an emailed statement, that they were conducting assessments on inmates.

“As medical staff conduct assessments throughout custody facilities in an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19, additional patients under investigation (PUI) were identified at the North County Correctional Facility, and the South Facility,” said the statement. “Out of an abundance of caution, those inmates were quarantined secondary to possible contact of 10 minutes or more with a person currently under investigation.”

An ambulance responds to Pitchess Detention Center on April 28, 2020. Dan Watson / The Signal.

Further questions about the conditions within the jails and COVID-19 within jail facilities were left unanswered as of Friday.

“There’s no such thing as social distancing in here,” said Rudolph Castro, 46, another Pitchess inmate who is awaiting his trial to face murder charges. “We’re pretty much packed in here like sardines.”

Castro said the inmates use the same soap, they shower together, line up, sit and eat together, and “everything is really close.” They’ve also been given disinfectant to clean the floors with, but the inmates have said they don’t believe it is enough.

According to at least three inmates within an NCFF dormitory, nearly every single inmate within a 90-man dorm began exhibiting some form of symptoms similar to those related to COVID-19 starting last week. All three said they’ve been experiencing symptoms, but outside of temperature checks and some receiving blood pressure checks, a majority of them remain untested and afraid.

“We’re bouncing off each other, there’s no room for each other to recover,” said Lopez. “If anyone does, there’s a guy coughing up in the air, sneezing and discharging.”

Lopez said all the men in his dorm sleep in the same room, stacked on top of each other with two beds to each bunk. They were told to sleep head to foot, and the inmates say they still need to share soap and have been required to sit shoulder-to-shoulder to have their temperature taken.

The inmates said they had been given cloth masks a week or so ago, but that had not been enough, they said.

On the same day The Signal reported an outbreak at the Pitchess Detention Center, the inmates within the North County Correctional Facility were submitting their second petition asking for COVID-19 testing.

Johnathan Misirli, 36, another NCCF inmate awaiting a murder trial, said Wednesday’s petition was the second they had submitted to the jail administration. The first, submitted last Friday, had approximately 50 signatures from inmates asking to be tested, he said.

“We know we’ve been exposed; four people have been taken out of here and tested positive, so far,” said Misirilli. “That petition was outright refused.”

For the second and most recent petition, Misirilli said the same number of inmates, a collection of men that crossed a number of demographic and racial lines, signed the petition, but that they also include medical request forms from each of the prisoners asking for tests. They have yet to hear back about this most recent petition.

“When I’ve been in county jail, as a detainee, I’ve never seen anything that was that much unity or clarity of thought about how damaging the conditions were,” said Kim McGill, an organizer for the Youth Justice Coalition, who regularly speaks with the inmates at Pitchess Detention Center. “They were always bad, but this is like a whole other level.”

“I’ve seen a lot of neglect of people here and generally just an attitude of malaise when it comes to addressing these issues,” said Misirilli.

Although the Department of Public Health does not oversee the health of inmates, with that job falling to LASD’s Correctional Health Services, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the director of the DPH, said Friday that being quarantined in a jail leads to similar exposure to the virus in the dormitory setting.

“And that’s why you’ll notice that we have over 4,000 people quarantined (of all the inmates in the county),” said Ferrer. “Because all those people had exposures and then they just are quarantined together for the 14-day period from the last exposure.”

“It’s kind of like you’re guilty until proven innocent,” said Castro. “Being in this jail could basically be a death sentence for all of us … if we don’t have it then there’s a likely chance that we will.”

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