Just days after Gabriel Lopez entered Los Angeles County’s Men’s Central Jail in late April 2020, his housing unit was placed on lockdown. There was possible Covid-19 exposure, jail administrators said, so everyone needed to quarantine.
Lopez was locked in his cell, which he estimates was 6-by-12 feet at most, with three bunkmates, effectively around the clock for almost two months. A few days after the unit was taken off quarantine, the jail announced further exposure and another lockdown, he said — a pattern that would repeat several times during Lopez’s five months in jail, as people were continuously transported in and out of the crowded facilities.
“We were getting quarantine after quarantine after quarantine after quarantine,” Lopez said. “I missed so many court dates because of their negligence.”
Near constant lockdown meant that Lopez didn’t reappear in court until 12 weeks after his arraignment, with proceedings such as a preliminary hearing — usually held within 10 days of arraignment to determine whether there’s enough evidence to hold someone on felony charges — rescheduled eight times in the weeks after he entered the jail, according to an online court register.
He is one of likely thousands of people incarcerated in LA County jails who have missed court dates since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. In a 2020 survey, more than four out of five respondents in the jails who hadn’t been convicted of a crime — around half of the people normally incarcerated by the county — said they had missed court dates because of coronavirus-related restrictions.
In quarantine, those incarcerated in LA County jails are stripped of what little freedoms and amenities they have, such as freedom of movement within their housing unit, access to hot meals, and communication with the outside world. In most cases, they can’t speak with their lawyers until the LA County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jails, gives the all-clear.“These systems want to operate and exist the same way that they did pre-Covid. And it’s impossible, it’s just not realistic.”
Jail quarantines can also lead to missed appointments, which prevent people from accessing treatment programs that could lead to release, according to LA County defense attorneys. Meanwhile, a pause in transfers from county to state custody has created confusion regarding people’s sentences, which may be keeping some people past their expected release dates. And halted jury trials are keeping many who maintain their innocence stuck in indefinite detention.
These delays have likely exacerbated inequities embedded in the criminal legal system. According to sheriff’s department data gathered by data scientist and activist Roger Pharr and analyzed by UCLA School of Law student researchers, the share of people incarcerated in the county jails who are Black or Hispanic had increased six months into the pandemic, while the percentage of white people decreased. Meanwhile, the percentage of jailed Black people who had been in custody for six months or longer jumped from 36 to 44 percent, a larger increase than other racial groups.
On the whole, the spread of Covid-19 inside LA County jails — a situation, currently incarcerated and recently released people say, the sheriff’s department is mismanaging — as well as delays in the courts, are wreaking havoc on the criminal legal system.
The best way to quell the chaos, advocates say, is by further depopulating the jails, especially by releasing those being held on bail they can’t afford, so incarcerated people aren’t constantly exposed to the coronavirus.
“These systems want to operate and exist the same way that they did pre-Covid,” said Gloria Gonzalez, youth development coordinator at Youth Justice Coalition LA. “And it’s impossible, it’s just not realistic.”