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March 17, 2022

Sheriff’s Initial Response to COVID-19 Jail Outbreak Sparks Backlash

Nate Taylor
The James A. Musick Facility in Irvine was affected by the court’s order to release incarcerated people accused of low-level crimes. The order was a part of a larger effort to combat the jail outbreak of COVID-19 that spiked in January. The decline in cases came after several lengthy court hearings to urge releases. Several public activists as well as the judge involved with the case recently spoke out against Sheriff Don Barnes’ noncompliance with the order.

Over the past month, the initial 1,000 positive cases of COVID-19 within jails dropped down to 13 positives with about 27 pending tests, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Despite the decline in COVID-19 cases, the Sheriff’s Department’s initial refusal on Dec. 11 to release at-risk inmates continues to leave some local activists and judges questioning the response.

“Prison overcrowding is now truly showing itself as a deadly problem, especially with this pandemic likely not going away for a while,” activist Wesley Smith of the OC Council Watch said. “Incarcerated persons are likely last in line to get vaccines. With those factors in mind, low-risk offenders should by no means be kept in these overcrowded death traps.”

According to public documents released by the Superior Court of Orange County in December 2020 judge Peter Wilson ordered half of the jail population to be reduced based on a recommendation by Dr. Chun Chiang of the county’s Health Care Agency. During a Feb.16 court hearing with Barnes, Wilson credited the successful containment of the outbreak to the court’s persistence against the Sheriff Department.

“The situation today is the product of what happened in December, when a hearing was held and an order was made,” Wilson said during the Feb. 16 court hearing. “And steps were taken since that date to create conditions in the jail that permitted as much social distancing as reasonably possible under the circumstances.”

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Among the jails affected by the order was the James Musick Facility in Irvine. Transforming Justice Orange County (TJOC), a public activist group focused on carceral system reform, is currently working to stop the $260 million expansion with the outbreak contributing to their concerns. 

“[Sheriff Don Barnes] got a huge raise, a couple hundred million dollars, so that he could build another jail right now, in Irvine, which we really don’t need. We’re under capacity in the existing jails,” activist Sarah Kahn of TJOC said. “He has that investment as well in making sure that jails are full, so that we can fill all of them, so that he can keep his budget and keep all of his employees employed.”

The Sheriff’s Department made several appeals ending with a final denial and initiating the release process. Barnes continued to echo concerns of community safety in a press release. 

Some student organizations, like the OC Justice Project (OCJP), encourage community members to show support for inmates through donations to reentry programs and speak out using their social media platforms. 

“I encourage students if they’re not going to donate money or if they’re not going to show up in person, I really recommend students to take a stance on social media,” Portola High OCJP chapter president and senior Michael Moon said. “I think that more students are engaging with social media every day, and the more students speak their opinions about the justice system, and the more that students kind of use their voice, we, our generation can kind of form a stronger image, and community members will be more likely to hear our voice.”

This story was originally published on Portola Pilot on February 24, 2021.