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April 30, 2020

SANTA ANA — A class action lawsuit was filed against the Orange County sheriff today by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California, the national ACLU Foundation, and the law firm Covington & Burling LLP. The suit seeks to force sheriff Don Barnes and the county to take urgent steps to remedy conditions in the jails during the pandemic.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, calls for immediate releases 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.

Barnes has made some reductions in the O.C. jails’ populations, but more than 100 people have already tested positive for COVID-19. Daniel Parker, assistant professor in the University of California, Irvine’s Department of Public Health and Epidemiology, warns in the lawsuit that the number of COVID-19 cases in the jail could quadruple by next week.

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 Orange County Sheriff’s Department has repeatedly failed its obligation to protect the safety of people in its custody,” said Jacob Reisberg, jails conditions advocate at the ACLU SoCal. “Under normal circumstances, this lack of care is shameful, but during COVID-19 it is catastrophic.”

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.”

Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, said, “The Orange County Jail has become a breeding ground for the spread of COVID-19, with more than a hundred confirmed cases and rising. The only way to mitigate this disaster, save lives, and flatten the curve, is to release many more people. We urge the court to do so.”

The lawsuit asks the court to take necessary steps to decrease the population of the facilities to make proper social distancing possible, first by releasing medically vulnerable and disabled people who are at the greatest risk of dying if they contract COVID-19.

Next, 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.

“Those in the Orange County Jail are among the most vulnerable groups during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Stacey Grigsby, a partner at Covington & Burling. “It is imperative, both from a legal and public health perspective, that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department take more steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the jail and in the surrounding community.”

Read the lawsuit here: