Orange County sheriff says there is no immediate plan to release inmates early over coronavirus

Priscella Vega
An inmate at Men's Central Jail in Santa Ana tested positive for the coronavirus Tuesday.  (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

A day after the first Orange County inmate tested positive for the coronavirus, the Sheriff's Department said it does not plan to release prisoners early amid the growing pandemic until all other options are exhausted.

Even as other counties release some inmates and limit the number of people booked into custody, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes told reporters Wednesday that his jail facilities could accommodate about 100 inmates in isolation if necessary.

"My goal is never to release people early," Barnes said.

Although he said he has no immediate plans to release inmates, Barnes has successfully petitioned the Orange County Superior Court for permission to release sentenced inmates up to 60 days early. "We need to put everything on the table for forward thinking, getting out ahead of this and, if necessary, release individuals early from our custody," he said.

Barnes' announcement comes a day after a 40-year-old inmate in Men's Central Jail in Santa Ana tested positive for the coronavirus. That inmate, who has been in custody on felony charges since June 2018, was in dormitory-type housing. Inmates in that housing unit are now quarantined and under observation, Barnes said. If they exhibit symptoms, he said, they will also be isolated and treated according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Six inmates are in quarantine and awaiting test results.

In an effort to stop the spread of illness within county jails, Barnes said, deputies were taking "extreme measures." They included pre-custody screenings of inmates, checks of employees and cancellations of visits and certain jail programs.

"We've been out in front of this as a precaution measure, implementing strategies as early as late January," Barnes said. "We have protocols in place and always have for contagious disease and control."

This week, health officials confirmed Orange County's first fatality as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continues to climb. As of Wednesday, the overall case count was 187.