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LA County releases inmates, reduces arrests to blunt COVID-19 spread

  • Los Angeles, home to the largest county jail system in the country, is actively reducing its jail population and reducing daily police arrests.
  • “Our population within our jails is a vulnerable population just by who they are, where they are located, so we’re protecting that population from potential exposure,” LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said.
  • Health experts say America’s incarcerated population of 2.3 million — the largest in the world — will inevitably be affected by the epidemic.
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As the novel coronavirus sweeps the country, with more than 5,700 cases nationally, Los Angeles County has ramped up containment efforts among some of its most vulnerable populations: inmates.

To slow the spread of coronavirus, Los Angeles County, which has the most inmates of any county prison system in the United States, announced that law enforcement agencies will reduce arrests and actively release inmates, Buzzfeed News reported Monday. 

“Our population within our jails is a vulnerable population just by who they are, where they are located, so we’re protecting that population from potential exposure,” Alex Villanueva, a Los Angeles County sheriff, told reporters. 

Over the past two weeks as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases has sharply risen, more than 600 inmates have been released, bringing the county’s number of total incarcerated people to 16,459, according to Villanueva. And over the weekend, daily arrest rates in the county fell from its usual trend of 300 to 60.

“That gives you an idea what each agency is doing, and they’re doing their best,” Villanueva said, adding that 35 inmates are quarantined across three jails after displaying symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. No incarcerated individual has tested positive for the disease. 

Health experts say America’s incarcerated population of 2.3 million — the world’s largest — will inevitably be affected by the epidemic. “It is not a matter of if but when,” according to 55 human-rights advocates demanding “humanity, not cages”. 

“The consequences of that eventuality will be devastating,” the statement said. “COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons and jails will spread ‘like wildfire’ due to close quarters, unsanitary conditions, a population that is more vulnerable to COVID-19, and the large number of people that cycle through the criminal justice system.” 

Incarcerated people are at higher risk of severe sickness or death from COVID-19. 

“Health conditions that increase vulnerability to COVID-19 — including tuberculosis, asthma, HIV, hypertension, diabetes, heart conditions — are all significantly higher among the jail and prison populations,” according to the Abolitionist Law Center.

The “decarceration” of people in prisons and jails is not widespread, but it is among efforts being actively pursued by some local groups around the country, including in New York City

Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Jail, for instance, is removing hundreds of incarcerated people from its system. Some will be released, and others will be transported to state prisons. And in Iran, some 85,000 incarcerated people were released in recent days.

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