SANTA ANA, Calif. – The Orange County Superior Court ordered a reduction of 50 percent of the population in the Orange County jails today in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Southern California, and Munger, Tolles & Olsen LLP. The lawsuit was filed against Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes in April to protect medically vulnerable people from COVID-19.
The order, written by Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson, builds off of a similar order issued by a state court of appeals in October that ordered San Quentin State Prison to reduce its population by 50 percent. Today’s order found that the conditions in the Orange County jails violate both the California Constitution and state disability discrimination law. It mandates that the county reduce the population of incarcerated people in all congregate living areas by 50 percent. This includes all dormitory and barracks style housing and multi-person cells. The county was ordered to file a plan with the court no later than Dec. 31 detailing how the reduction has been achieved, and how the county will continue to keep the population at a lower density to reduce the risk of an outbreak. The court also ordered the jail to continue to take all necessary measures to ensure social distancing “until the current COVID-19 emergency is declared terminated.”
“This victory belongs to the incarcerated people who had the courage to speak out about Sheriff Barnes’ failed response to COVID-19,” said Daisy Ramirez, jails conditions & policy coordinator at the ACLU SoCal. “Their resistance and leadership will save lives, as Orange County hospitals are currently nearing capacity. The court’s decision to alleviate the pressure on the jail by depopulating will help prevent the medical infrastructure — in the jail and in the surrounding community — from becoming totally overwhelmed. This order recognizes that we must not forget the humanity of incarcerated people, and they should not be put in mortal danger.”
As the court was considering the petitioners’ motion, Sheriff Barnes admitted in a filing last night that yet another outbreak had occurred. According to Sheriff Barnes’ statements on Dec. 10, the Orange County jails had 74 confirmed cases, 75 tests pending, and many more people waiting to be tested. More than 300 people who were exposed to the people tested positive are currently in quarantine, according to the Sheriff. Just last week, the county told Judge Wilson that such an outbreak would be impossible at the jail, that nowhere in Orange County was safer from COVID than the jail, and compared the jail to New Zealand.
“This order will save lives,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “We have seen again and again in this suit and in similar litigation around the country, corrections officials have not taken the necessary steps to protect incarcerated people from the spread of COVID-19, nor have they been honest about the circumstances and risk levels in their facilities. Public health experts and epidemiological studies have been clear: This country won’t be able to get the pandemic under control unless we’re able to get it under control in prisons and jails. Orange County has one of the largest jail systems in the United States, and today’s order is an example about what needs to be done to save lives.”
The decision is online.