In a December 14 LA Times op-ed, Hadsell Stormer Renick & Dai attorney Theresa Zhen and ACLU National Prison Project attorney Eric Balaban assert that reducing the jail population is a “matter of life or death for thousands” and urge Gascón to take action.
Zhen and Balaban represent community organizations Dignity and Power Now and the Youth Justice Coalition, as well as BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors, in a class action lawsuit holding LA County sheriffs accountable for the lack of imposition of health and safety measures to halt the spread of COVID-19 in the jail system.
They highlight factors contributing to dangerous health conditions — crowded living areas that make social distancing impossible, compounded by the fact that prisoners are sporadically supplied with proper masks, and some officers do not wear masks at all.
Specifically, they highlight the case of Teresa Gomez, a pregnant woman who contracted COVID-19 while incarcerated. She was placed in solitary confinement, denied obstetric wellness medical appointments, and has missed court dates.
They cite data showing that to date 3,600 prisoners have contracted COVID while in jail, and nine have died, and posit that more illness and death are sure to follow, given the precipitous rise in the jail population– 12,00 to 15,400 — in the past three months.
In conclusion, Zhen and Balaban call on Gascon to honor his pledge to depopulate the jails—actions which would include not charging people with low-level offenses and ending cash bail for misdemeanor charges. They posit that the system should not incarcerate those awaiting trial whenever possible and “presume release rather than incarceration,” as well as setting a maximum number for the jail population that would allow social distancing.