A New COVID-19 Lawsuit Seeks to Change the Horrifying Conditions in Los Angeles Jails

A protester stands by a van marked with the sign "detention is deadly."
Human Rights activists prepare for a car caravan protest through downtown Los Angeles to call on officials to release inmates from jails to prevent the spread of coronavirus on April 7. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Slate is making its coronavirus coverage free for all readers. Subscribe to support our journalism. Start your free trial.

Over the past two months, COVID-19 has peeled off the topcoat we used to paint over the American story about justice and equality. The virus has brutalized already marginalized communities of color. It has also fallen hardest on the elderly, the poor, and one other group in particular: the prison population.

On Friday, a coalition of activists in Los Angeles called COVID-19 Rapid Response and a number of vulnerable inmates sued Los Angeles County and the L.A. County sheriff over failures to safeguard the health of inmates, exposing further just how horrific the pre-COVID-19 status quo was and how badly conditions have deteriorated amid a pandemic. The litigants are demanding that the L.A. County sheriff implement constitutionally mandated procedures to protect prisoners from contracting COVID-19, and to comply with guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and California Department of Public Health. The lawsuit is hoping Los Angeles will take actions to mitigate the spread of the virus and release people at high risk for serious illness or death in the event of COVID-19 infection due to age or underlying medical conditions.

As we keep learning, prisons and jails are functionally virus breeding grounds now. On Friday, it was reported that 690 inmates and 30 staff inside Cummins Prison have tested positive for COVID-19, which accounts for more than a quarter of the confirmed cases in all of Arkansas. NPR reported this week that 73 percent of the inmates at Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio had tested positive for the virus. A recent ACLU study found that COVID-19 could kill approximately 100,000 more people if jail populations are not dramatically and immediately reduced. Prior to the pandemic, Los Angeles County had the largest jail system in the country, housing nearly 17,000 inmates. That number has shrunk to just under 12,000 in roughly the past month, but conditions in the system are still extremely dangerous.

Rodney Cullors is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that was filed on Friday. The 58-year-old Cullors, who was in Men’s Central Jail at the time the suit was drafted, suffers from hypertension, heart problems, spinal damage requiring use of a wheelchair, bipolar disorder, and manic depression. Plaintiff Jessica Haviland is a 39-year-old woman who was in the custody of Century Regional Detention Facility and had been exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 and was not tested. Other plaintiffs are in similar situations. The complaint describes the L.A. County jails as ticking time bombs and argues that the pandemic will ravage inmates who, according to the complaint, “do not have adequate soap, have no safe way to dry their hands or to maintain a distance of at least six feet of one another, are not being tested for infection even when showing symptoms.” The suit continues: “They must wait days or even weeks to receive medical attention for COVID-19 related symptoms, share with dozens of other people high-touch surfaces that are infrequently cleaned, and are denied basic hygienic supplies.”

The plaintiffs note that the CDC has issued guidance for avoiding contagion in prisons and that Los Angeles County has already taken steps to reduce its prisoner population. Other state-system measures to ameliorate the spread mean that meals are now served in cells and recreation time in public spaces has been decreased, as has visitation. Some efforts to improve sanitation and educate prisoners have been made.

Other state attempts to stave off a crisis are notable: On April 6, the California Judicial Council adopted an Emergency Bail Schedule, setting bail at $0 for most misdemeanor and lower-level felony offenses. But the plaintiffs in this class remain at high risk, and time is very much of the essence. The complaint notes that as of this past Thursday, 149 prisoners and at least 105 staff in California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facilities tested positive and that in just a single week this month the number of prisoners testing positive for COVID-19 grew by 700 percent and the number of staff testing positive nearly tripled. The lawsuit also notes that one model’s estimates “predict that, if current infection and incarceration trends hold, two-fifths of California’s hospital beds may be required by prisoners in mid-May.”

The complaint further describes how in Men’s Central Jail:

up to ninety-six people are forced to live in the same jail cell where dozens of triple bunk beds are placed between one to three feet apart. Even if they sleep head to foot, they remain within less than six feet apart.

Some inmates share a handful of communal phones, exercise equipment, and communal tables. Inmates of advanced age are not separated. Personal hygiene products are limited to one bar of soap that can only be replaced through the jail’s commissary system and one clean towel a week. Not every inmate has access to the commissary, some have no funds, and the prices are inflated. There is no access to hand sanitizer or gloves. Inmates with symptoms are not separated from the population. Inmates who need daily breathing treatments have allegedly had their CPAP machines confiscated.

Further, at Men’s Central Jail, incarcerated individuals were previously making their own makeshift masks. “[S]uch activity,” the lawsuit notes, “is considered destruction of jail property and subject to a write up, loss of privileges, or other disciplinary action.”

In another facility, North County Correctional Facility, “incarcerated people are forced to share four toilets, two urinals, and two showers” in each 66-person cell. Inmates there have still not been provided face masks or face coverings. The complaint also alleges that transportation of prisoners also renders them unsafe and that those who test positive for the virus receive inadequate treatment.

Patrisse Cullors helped found JusticeLA, a group that is part of the COVID-19 Rapid Response coalition, and is quick to point out that the suit is simply one aspect of a far larger, more sustained movement. “As an abolitionist movement our work to end the use of incarceration for the most vulnerable communities happened before COVID-19,” she told me. “The last 18 months I chaired a ballot committee called Reform LA Jails because I deeply believe in order to change the material conditions for marginalized communities you must have a multiprong strategy.”

Coalition member Michael Saavedra, of the grassroots organization Dignity and Power Now, further notes that the problems at the heart of the lawsuit are endemic. “Almost 30 percent of LA’s jail population suffers from mental illness, resulting in the caging of more than 5,000 county psychiatric patients,” he told me. “And it is well documented that those with mental health conditions suffer from substandard care in LA County detention.”

JusticeLA, for its part, preexisted the coronavirus and had been successfully pushing for deep criminal justice reform in Los Angeles since its founding in 2017. The organization’s recent pre-COVID successes included helping to halt L.A. County’s $3.5 billion jail expansion plan, refocusing public attention on the mental health needs of inmates, and campaigning for a 2020 countywide ballot initiative to increase oversight of the sheriff’s department and improve mental health resources.

Coalition members universally acknowledge the creation of COVID-19 Rapid Response is part of a much larger project. “Los Angeles leads the country in jailing and probation,” said Lex Steppling of coalition member Dignity and Power Now. “And thus, in a moment like this, there is an urgent desire from those who work in the law, those who work in advocacy and accountability to the communities most targeted by law enforcement, and those who work to provide services both via healthcare, and in response to basic needs, to see the necessary changes come about once and for all.”

COVID-19 didn’t create the problems in American jails and prisons. But everyone on the response team agrees that it is now shining a light on a set of profound troubles that have been ignored or swept under the rug for far too long. Dan Stormer, chief counsel on the team, believes that the very breadth of this coalition ensures that the systemic problems will not be ignored when the crisis ends. “The coalition is challenging everything from the school to prison pipeline to bail and sentencing issues,” Stormer said. “It is more recently joined with 40 other organizations statewide to address the crisis in our jails and prisons. One of the prime lessons we can take away from this is that we have a completely broken system that cannot be fixed by applying the same old measures.” Like policies surrounding medicine, education, and the judiciary, this incarceration nation is unlikely to emerge from the current medical crisis unchanged. Fortunately, there are some who have already laid the groundwork for that change and they are stepping up like never before.