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Lawsuit challenging sheriff’s handling of COVID-19 in county jails moves toward trial

Twenty-one people in San Diego County jails are actively infected with COVID-19, six have died and the cumulative caseload is close to 4,700.

But a Sheriff’s Department lawyer said Friday that officials have done a “remarkable” job protecting detainees, and a lawsuit challenging their handling of the virus should be dismissed.

At a court hearing Friday, county attorney Steven Inman said people in sheriff’s custody are safer in jail than they would be in the community.

“Truly these efforts have been remarkable and effective,” Inman told Superior Court Judge Joel Wohlfeil. “Our deputies and nurses have put their hearts into this. COVID-19 no longer poses the same risk that it once did.”

The pleading was not entirely persuasive.

Wohlfeil rejected the county’s request for a summary judgment in its favor. The decision means the lawsuit filed last year by the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter and other law firms appears headed to trial.

“How this case will ultimately be decided, I don’t know,” Wohlfeil said before announcing his ruling at the conclusion of the 30-minute hearing.

The ACLU joined other civil-rights law firms in suing San Diego County last year, alleging that conditions inside local jails are especially dangerous for incarcerated people due to the sheriff’s lax COVID-19 practices.

Jonathan Markowitz, the ACLU staff attorney who opposed the motion in court Friday, said the county has yet to demonstrate that it is closely following guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This suit remains necessary because it remains clear that the Sheriff’s Department will not meet its obligation to protect people from COVID-19 without court intervention,” he told the Union-Tribune.

Rather, sheriff’s officials continue to resist implementing “basic, common-sense measures” recommended by public health experts, like high-quality masks, separating people who are vulnerable to severe illness or death or significantly reducing the jail population, he said.

While sheriff’s officials tout the efforts they have taken to date, the virus has killed two department employees and six people in custody.

As of this week, the disease has sickened a total of 4,673 detainees and 3,206 department employees. In addition to the 21 people in custody with active infections, 42 department employees are currently sick.

Also, 51 detainees have been placed into isolation for their own protection, the department said.

The lawsuit was filed in March 2021, one day after an outbreak infected 46 men at the George Bailey Detention Facility — the county’s largest jail, which officials have struggled to keep below capacity amid outbreaks.

Current and former plaintiffs are seeking to require the Sheriff’s Department to broaden COVID-19 testing and vaccinations across the county’s six separate jails. They also want improved sanitation, plumbing repairs and more cleaning supplies.

Lawyers representing the incarcerated people have filed numerous declarations from their clients and other detainees that describe unsanitary and dangerous conditions inside the jails.

“Guards and medical staff don’t seem to care one way or another if we get vaccinated,” one man said in a declaration filed with the court. “They don’t engage with us when we have questions, and some guards don’t even wear masks.”

Other filings assert that sheriff’s officials have failed to maintain basic hygiene protocols critical to managing an infectious outbreak. The cells are filthy, detainees say, shower drains have a half-inch or more of standing water and worms have been reported in bathroom drains.

Inman told Wohlfeil that the county has worked to follow federal public health guidelines despite its limited resources.

He noted the average daily jail population has declined from more than 5,600 before the pandemic to less than 4,000. And he pointed out that President Joe Biden told a national television audience earlier this year that the pandemic was over.

“It’s indisputable that the Sheriff’s Department has substantially mobilized to protect inmates,” Inman said.

But Markowitz countered that the declarations from detainees are not isolated cases. The evidence shows that sheriff’s officials regularly fall short of basic safety practices and wrongly continue to expose people in custody to the virus.

“Those mistakes (asserted in declarations) are, in fact, systemic,” he said. “They are not aberrational. They are something that happens regularly.”

The two sides will be back in court late next month for what’s called a trial readiness conference. The case, which will be heard by the judge rather than a jury, is scheduled for trial Feb. 10.

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