This letter was written by a person incarcerated at Orange County Central Men’s Jail.
When the pandemic first broke in March 2020, the only “masks” the jail would give us were cut up pieces of sad bare sheets. While the jail started giving lip service to social distancing, it is impossible in jail. It took a couple of months to get disinfectant and paper towels in the “day room” for those of us held in cells (I’ve been in one for eight and a quarter years). The dorms (bunk beds lined up about three feet apart) were hit the worst.
I am aware (secondhand, but reliable) of five deaths. The sheriff has lied to the press and said one. In the dorms, inmates were intentionally sharing water bottles under the mistaken belief that they would be released promptly if positive for COVID. Some inmates were eventually released, but it took pressure and a lawsuit from the ACLU to accomplish it.
With outside pressure, after a couple of months (when the ACLU had taken action) the jail started providing real masks. But the only thing the jail did about social distancing was post signs until there were multiple complaints by medically vulnerable prisoners to the ACLU, the jail did not start endorsing the use of masks, and even then, enforcing was sporadic. Ironically, where I am confined in the medical unit, the worst offenders going maskless were the deputies.
When medically vulnerable inmates were transported to court, they were placed in holding cells with other inmates from other confirmed in other areas of the jail. Because jails have replaced former “insane asylums” the jail population fluctuates around 25 percent mentally ill prisoners. Expecting them to wear masks consistently and maintain social distance is unrealistic. Thus, any time a prisoner leaves the jail (court or medical appointment) s/he will be exposed to persons who may be positive and may spread it to cell or dorm mates upon return to the jail.
As for vaccinations go, the jail started in February, but after vaccinating people over 65 and those with underlying medical conditions, the jail switched from Pfizer to Johnson & Johnson (the blood clot vaccine), and if a prisoner refused to accept the single shot of J&J s/he were told that they would get nothing. At least one nurse acknowledged that the medical staff preferred J&J because it took less of their time to administer. Right now there are people in my cell block who have signed forms requesting vaccination as long ago as two months that are still waiting.
The other thing that happened right after the pandemic broke was a significant change in the food provided. Initially, the jail switched from hot breakfasts and hot dinners to serving cold lunch three times daily: institutional bologna (not for retail sale — it’s made by sweeping up all the unwanted scraps on the slaughter house floor, grinding it up, and pressing it into circular slices) four slices of bread and an apple or orange, half pint of skim milk was served at breakfast and dinner (as well as a small package of institutional cookies with almost no nutritional value).
This went from March – August 2020. In August, we got hot meals back, but they were cancelled again in early December. We now get cold cereal, peanut butter, or two hard-boiled eggs for breakfast + bread, but lunch and dinner are still bologna. About two months ago they finally added a small package of carrots every other day at lunch.
The excuse for stopping hot meals is that they don’t have enough “inmate workers.” There are still 3,000 prisoners here (approximately), and plenty that would work for free (they don’t get paid — it’s the equivalent of slave labor) just to have something to do besides sitting in a cell all day. The jail also stopped providing books when the pandemic hit, so unless a prisoner has family who can buy brand new books from an acceptable online seller, books may be hard to get.