Like a Petri Dish 

Tens of Thousands of California Inmates at Risk of COVID-19 Infection

click to enlarge main-jail-sji-1_1_.jpg

Jose Amendariz was on one of his frequent trips to the nurse’s station in Orange County’s largest jail when deputies hauled in a man in a mask.

Of all the inmates inside the jail, the 29-year-old Armendariz needs the most care: insulin shots for Type I diabetes, pills for hypertension, asthma inhaler puffs for his ravaged respiratory system. The new arrival was of average height and moderate build, his head shaved, nothing particularly noteworthy about him as an inmate.

Except for the surgical mask covering his face.

There was no official announcement, but a nurse turned to tell Armendariz: The man in the mask had COVID-19. Armendariz felt the breath rush out of his lungs.

The jail’s medical unit is a series of concentric circles, with a guard station in the center, a nurse’s station encircling it and jail cells the size of parking spaces in the outermost ring. Armendariz started his 20-foot walk back to his sector.

The men in Armendariz’s medical ward were already worried that the coronavirus pandemic spreading outside their walls would eventually find its way inside. The usual loud chatter rang out from their cells. Amendariz stopped short, waiting for them to quiet down. “It’s officially here,” he said.

The ward fell silent.


A Human Petri Dish

A jail doctor told Armendariz, who has been incarcerated for 13 years, that he is among the most medically vulnerable to the virus of all the inmates in California. But there are countless others who are at risk inside the state’s 99 adult county jails and state prisons, which house about 150,000 inmates.

So far, few infections have been reported among California’s inmates. Eight inmates in California prisons have tested positive for the coronavirus, along with 62 Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation employees.

In jails, there are no reliable statewide numbers for infections. But in Santa Clara County, two inmates and 13 deputies have tested positive for COVID-19. In Orange County, 10 have been confirmed to have the virus and 159 are in quarantine. Two deputies also have tested positive, including one who works at Armendariz’s jail, the Theo Lacy Facility.

In Los Angeles County, seven inmates have tested positive and one jail nurse who died had the disease. Thirteen other inmates are in isolation with fevers exceeding 100 degrees, and another 308 inmates have been quarantined, meaning they were in close contact with someone in isolation.

In Riverside County, a sheriff’s deputy who died of complications from COVID-19 on March 30 likely contracted it from an inmate he escorted to a medical facility.

“Everybody knows from TV shows, from movies, what the environment is like in prison,” said Heather Williams, federal defender for the Eastern District of California, which serves as public defenders for federal defendants in Bakersfield, Redding, Fresno and Sacramento. “Two, three, four to a cell, massive meal times. Even the yard gets crowded.

“So you have this Petri dish. It’s inhumane, and it’s a recipe for absolute disaster.”

An infectious disease is a matter of mathematics. Its transmissibility is defined as its reproduction rate, and this coronavirus is very good at reproducing, better than the flu, although not quite as good as the virus known as SARS. Social distancing, self-isolation, quarantining the sick—all can dampen its spread and forestall a crush of patients flooding hospitals all at once.

But that’s on the outside.

In jails, there is no real social distancing, and certainly no self-isolation.

“How do you avoid mass congregation in a jail?” said Linda Bernard, a Pennsylvania legal nurse consultant who testifies on healthcare in jails. “You can do feeding in housing units or cells, but there will be people mixing.”

Jails aren’t isolated from the larger community. The New York Times reported on last week that the Cook County Jail in Chicago is the nation’s largest known source of coronavirus infections, with a cluster of at least 350 inmates and guards infected.

Bernard has seen outbreaks of mumps, lice and the flu in jails, and each carries a risk of transmission to the outside world. “You have employees coming in and picking something up,” Bernard said, “and potentially exposing their families.”


click to enlarge Jose Armendariz, 29, convicted of second-degree murder, poses at the Kern Valley State Prison in 2017. He has since been moved to the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange County, where he and other medically fragile inmates worry that the spread of the coronavirus could be deadly for them. - (PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHANNA DIAZ)
  • (Photo courtesy of Johanna Diaz)
  • Jose Armendariz, 29, convicted of second-degree murder, poses at the Kern Valley State Prison in 2017. He has since been moved to the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange County, where he and other medically fragile inmates worry that the spread of the coronavirus could be deadly for them.

Inmates Say Conditions Are Unsafe

When the wheels of justice grind to a halt, the carceral system continues to pump in new inmates as police make new arrests. During the pandemic, with courts closed across the country, the place they all land—and the place most will stay—is the county jail.

Inside, inmates like Armendariz are now locked in a facility with a patient carrying a highly communicable disease that the men are convinced will lead to their own slow, agonizing deaths.

Armendariz, who was convicted when a teenager of second-degree murder of a gang member, and fellow medical-sector inmate Lonnie Kocontes said they’ve watched guards, nurses and inmates in the Orange County jail fail to follow cleaning protocols. Among their biggest fears is contamination when nurses or inmate workers make the rounds with plastic pill bags, which are opened and poured into the hands of inmates.

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