After 60% of incarcerated people tested positive for coronavirus, LA County says it will test everyone

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At least 60% of those incarcerated in Los Angeles County jails, one of the largest county jail systems in the country, have been infected with COVID-19. But it wasn't until last week, after officials confirmed the first coronavirus death of a person in a county jail, that the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services and the Sheriff’s Department announced that everyone incarcerated in county facilities will be tested for coronavirus. Advocacy, activist, and justice organizations had called for such a plan for months, and an anonymously posted document shows the extent of the departments' plans for testing, including information about frequency, triage, and mitigation.

Until this announcement of universal testing for incarcerated folks, Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva has posited the dangerous idea that "herd immunity" is an effective virus mitigation strategy; advocates noted that this claim is not based in science. There's no evidence that infection prevents future contraction of the disease, and scientists say letting people get sick rather than protect them from illness is cruel and punitive.

"[Villanueva] doesn’t care about the welfare of incarcerated people and thinks he is above law and oversight," Patrisse Cullors, chair of Reform LA Jails, told Mic in an email. "From his videos falsely accusing incarcerated folks of purposefully trying to get COVID, to his unwillingness to abide by the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission’s regulations, and to this, it is clear that he should not be in the position he is in."

Now publicly available, the document details a screening and testing plan for those entering county jails as well as those already incarcerated. Those entering the jails who show symptoms of coronavirus will be tested and placed in isolation before being placed in the typical congregate jail setting. Incarcerated people will be tested in waves, and the plan states that those with "mild" infections will be treated in jails by county staff, while those with "moderate to severe" cases "may" be transported to an outside hospital. The document does not offer an explanation as to who will assess the severity of infection, nor does it detail by what measures severity will be assessed. The document also does not state whether or not the jails have been equipped with sufficient personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other tools to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. (Mic reached out to the sheriff's office but did not receive a response.)

"Independent of COVID, we're talking about a criminal justice system that actually spread poor health by design," says Lenore Anderson, the founder and president of Californians for Safety and Justice. Anderson says that incarceration increases the likelihood that people will get sick and is counterproductive to maintaining public health. "At least 30-40% of people going into jail and prisons have underlying health conditions upon entering, [which] typically worsen in very close quarters," Anderson tells Mic. The pre-existing medical conditions of incarcerated people is just one reason why infection rates have been so high; she says jails and prisons are not equipped to deal with the normal health care needs of those who are incarcerated, let alone the demands of a pandemic.

But testing is just one part of the solution, Cullors told Mic in the email. The safest place to be during a pandemic, as advocates have said since the onset of the virus in the U.S., is at home. Most municipalities have released some, but not all, people with underlying medical conditions or those with just a few weeks more to serve of their sentence. Anderson says that the LA County reduction of its incarcerated population by more than 30% is a good start, but that "local and state jurisdictions need to expand eligible release."

"[The] elderly who have been overlooked for release, who are medically vulnerable, and people who are a low risk to public safety, [and] people who have already served extremely long sentences need not be held any longer," Anderson tells Mic. Advocates also note that jails and prisons are transient places. Every day, staff enter and leave jails where infection rates are high, which can actually increase the public health risk outside jails of transmitting coronavirus.

Until this announcement, those incarcerated in county and state jails and prisons were fighting for both information about coronavirus as well as basic means to protect themselves, such as having access to PPE or hand sanitizer. Cullors told Mic that "just because someone is incarcerated does not mean that they do not deserve adequate medical care and sanitary conditions." She added that some incarcerated people in Los Angeles's Men's Central Jail were "forced to clean COVID-19 contaminated cells without any protection," and others reported being "transferred into cells with non-positive individuals without any warning or quarantine period."

Anderson notes that incarcerated people are generally an overlooked population when it comes to health care, but there are layers to the problem. "The fastest growing population in prisons and jails are women. By and large women are disproportionately incarcerated for economic crimes," she says. "Women who are incarcerated are parents. The system has essentially responded to needs for help by making matters worse." She says that the same way that income level or race are related to the likelihood of contracting coronavirus, so too do these connections exist in a system that criminalizes poverty and produces poor health outcomes.

As for how to move forward, "We need people to realize that the lives of incarcerated folks matter just as much as the lives of non-incarcerated folks, and we need our jail policies to reflect that fact," Cullors said. With the first and second steps of testing and release underway, she added that the next legislative move needs to be looking at redirecting funds away from incarceration and policing.

"Another step in the right direction would be to defund law enforcement agencies, like the police and sheriff," per Cullors, and "invest that money in communities of color to help reconcile the abuse and acknowledge what the data tells us — punitive approaches do not reduce recidivism."