Inmates at the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic apparently infected themselves on purpose with COVID-19 in an attempt to get early releases, the Los Angeles County’s sheriff said on Monday.
About two dozen inmates — all living in one module at the North County Correctional Facility on the sprawling Pitchess property — gathered in a common area and passed around a bottle of hot water in mid-April, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said.
They also took turns donning a used face mask and inhaling, the sheriff said.
It’s unclear if one of the men thought he had the virus, or if the inmates were just hoping one of them had it and would infect the others, the sheriff said.
There’s no audio in the video. And Villanueva said interviews with the inmates did not turn up evidence that there was a plan.
But the sheriff said there was also no reason for them to share. Each inmate is provided with a personal mask and individual water bottles to fill up at a water dispenser.
At least 21 inmates in the module, out of about 50, later tested positive for coronavirus.
“There was a mistaken belief that this was a way to force our hand, and somehow release more inmates,” Villanueva said, showing a surveillance video during a Monday virtual press conference.
The video shows a group of inmates in the standard-issue blue jumpsuits standing together and passing the objects among themselves.
The sheriff said up until the mid-April incident, there were no confirmed cases of coronavirus at the North County Correctional Facility. But a spike shortly after the incident led deputies to track how inmates were first exposed.
That’s when they discovered the incident on the security-camera footage.
The Sheriff’s Department now believes dozens of additional inmates became infected with the virus because of this one event, the sheriff said.
Deputies are still investigating what happened. If a nurse or deputy gets sick because of the inmates’ actions, charges could be filed against them.
Over the last three months, the Sheriff’s Department has released thousands of inmates to reduce the possibility of a widespread and destructive outbreak of coronavirus in the country’s largest jail system. L.A. County’s jail population is now below 12,000 — about 5,000 fewer than before the pandemic.
Many of those released were inmates with fewer than 30 days left on their sentences. Others were pre-trial detainees charged with non-violent crimes who will now wait for their trials at home.
The District Attorney’s Office and the courts have also re-sentenced inmates who they found didn’t pose a danger if released.
Villanueva said if the jail system was still heavily populated, the outbreak could have been even worse. There are 222 inmates system-wide now who have the coronavirus. In total, 357 have tested positive over the last few months. None have died.
At least 4,590 inmates — nearly 40 percent — are under quarantine in L.A. County. The number has fluctuated wildly as sheriff’s deputies lock down entire units, some that can house 1,000 inmates each, as they find more coronavirus cases.
The Sheriff’s Department is now testing all new inmates.
Villanueva said some of the cases can be tied to inmates who entered a jail already sick with coronavirus, before testing was available. He said these inmates were asymptomatic.
In Orange and San Bernardino counties, officials said they are not aware of any incident in which inmates intentionally attempted to infect themselves with the coronarivus.
The sheriff said no one in the department anticipated inmates trying to infect themselves on purpose.
“I don’t think we entertained that someone would try and do this,” he said. “But it happened, so we just got to deal with it.”
Staff writer Sean Emery contributed to this report.
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