This class-action lawsuit seeks to force Sheriff Don Barnes and Orange County to take urgent steps to remedy conditions in Orange County jails during the pandemic. Specifically, it calls for the immediate release of vulnerable and disabled people in jail, plus greatly expanded social distancing, care, testing, and personal protective equipment. It also seeks additional releases until the jail population is low enough to provide for the level of social distancing recommended by public health experts.

As of May 26, 2020, at least 366 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Orange County's jails.

The people in the most immediate danger are those with underlying medical conditions and disabilities. The lawsuit points out that the County has compiled a list of more than 500 medically vulnerable and disabled people in the jails, but not released the people on this list.

Several of those people are named plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit. Among them are:

  • Don Wagner, 68, a cancer survivor who is especially vulnerable when he goes to the in-jail medical station to have his blood pressure and thyroid levels monitored. To clean himself, he is issued only a small bar of soap per week and he has no funds to buy more.
  • Cynthia Campbell, 64, who is immunocompromised due to rheumatoid arthritis. Yet she is forced into situations, including when she goes for treatments, where she is not able to keep a six-foot social distance.

Another group at high risk are nursing mothers. Melissa Ahlman, 32, is housed in the Central Women’s Jail in Santa Ana. Multiple times per day, she pumps milk for her seven-month-old baby. After each pumping session, she must wait in crowded areas alongside sick people seeking medical treatment to deliver the milk to nurses.

“I wonder what will happen if I get sick and it spreads to my baby through my milk,” Ahlman said. “And I worry that I will get sick in here and not be able to come home to her.”

The current situation at the jails is not just a medical and moral emergency, it’s also a violation of U.S. Constitution and disability rights laws, which protect people in jails from cruel and unusual punishment, and disability discrimination.

The lawsuit asks the court to adopt a plan overseen by a public health expert that will reduce the population to a safe level that allows for consistent social distancing. The plan should also coordinate release planning and ensure that CDC guidance is fully implemented in the O.C. jails, including adequate access to soap and cleaning supplies, testing and humane quarantines of people exposed to COVID19, and the providing of adequate personal protective equipment.

Case Developments

May 26, 2020
Order granting in-part and denying in-part plaintiffs' application for temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction and granting plaintiffs' motion for provisional class certification. Read the order.

April 30, 2020
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana. Read the complaint here.

Date filed

April 30, 2020


United States District Court Central District of California


Jesus G. Bernal



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