Inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic apparently infected themselves on purpose with COVID-19 in an attempt to get early releases, the Los Angeles County’s sheriff said on Monday.
About two dozen inmates living in one module at the jail gathered in a common area and passed around a cup of hot water and a used face mask between each other in mid-April, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said.
It’s unclear if one of the men thought he had the virus, or if the inmates were just hoping one of them had it and would infect the others, the sheriff said.
The inmates would not talk to deputies about their actions, but the sheriff said it sure seems like they wanted to get sick to win early releases.
At least 21 inmates in the module, out of about 50, later tested positive for coronavirus.
“There was a mistaken belief that this was a way to force our hand, and somehow release more inmates,” Villanueva said, showing a surveilllance video during a Monday virtual press conference of the group of blue-jumpsuit-clad inmates standing together and passing the objects among themselves.
After an outbreak at the facility, deputies tried to figure out how that occurred and found the incident on the video.
The Sheriff’s Department now believes dozens more inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center later became infected with the virus because of this one event, the sheriff said.
An investigation is underway, the sheriff said, and if a nurse or deputy gets sick because of the inmates’ actions, charges could be filed against the suspects.
Over the last three months, the Sheriff’s Department has released thousands of inmates to try and reduce the possibility of a widespread and destructive outbreak of coronavirus in the country’s largest jail system. L.A. County’s jail population is now below 12,000 – about 5,000 fewer than before the pandemic.
Many of those released were inmates with fewer than 30 days left on sentences. Others were pre-trial detainees charged with non-violent crimes who will now wait for their trials at home.
The District Attorney’s Office and the courts have also resentenced inmates who they found didn’t pose a danger if released.
Villanueva said if the jail system was still overpopulated, the outbreak could have been even worse. There are 222 inmates in the system who are known to have coronavirus. In total, 357 have tested positive over the last few months. None has died.
The sheriff said no one in the department anticipated inmates trying to infect themselves on purpose.
“I don’t think we entertained that someone would try and do this,” he said. “But it happened, so we just got to deal with it.”