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SoCal ACLU Sues Orange County Sheriff To Reduce Inmate Population During Coronavirus Pandemic

SANTA ANA (CBSLA) -- The ACLU of Southern California filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against the Orange County Sheriff in an attempt to reduce the jail population during the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit demands immediate release of "vulnerable and disabled" inmates, better social distancing protocols, and increases in care, testing, and personal protective equipment.

On Thursday, the sheriff's department reported 122 inmates and three deputies have tested positive for the virus.

MORE: 7 High-Risk Sex Offenders Released As Part Of Orange County Jail Population Reduction

Sheriff Don Barnes told the OC Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that the jail population has been reduced by 45 percent since last month when Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order.

In a statement Thursday, Barnes said he has "implemented extraordinary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and preserve jail operations. These measures include the release of a limited amount of sentenced low-level offenders."

The jail population has declined from 5,303 inmates on March 7 to 2,911 inmates as of Tuesday, according to the statement.

"Today's jail population occupies only 39% of our jail's actual capacity of just over 7,400 beds," Barnes said. "I will continue to take measures needed to ensure the capacity is available to maintain safe operations and preserve our ability to house criminal offenders.

"At this moment, the early release of specified low-level offenders and the actions by the courts provide the capacity to meet our current needs."

Barnes said he "must also ensure the safety of the law-abiding public" when releasing jail inmates.

"I am not supportive of extensive preemptive releases that go beyond what is necessary to keep the jail and community safe," Barnes said. "I am confident that the measures we continue to take in the jails meet our obligation to provide for the safety of both inmates and staff."

However, the ACLU of SoCal is saying that disability rights of inmates are still being violated.

"The Orange County Sheriff's Department has repeatedly failed its obligation to protect the safety of people in its custody," said Jacob Reisberg, a jail conditions advocate at the ACLU. "Under normal circumstances, this lack of care is shameful, but during COVID-19 it is catastrophic."

According to the ACLU, over 500 inmates are considered "medically vulnerable" or disabled and should be released.

MORE: Coronavirus: Orange County Reports Additional Death, 145 New Cases As Gov. Newsom Calls For 'Hard Close' Of County's Beaches

The plaintiffs include Don Wagner, a 68-year-old cancer survivor who said he has to have his blood pressure and thyroid levels checked frequently, which is putting him at risk. He also said he is only given a small bar of soap each week to clean himself.

Cynthia Campbell, 64, is another plaintiff. She said she has rheumatoid arthritis and cannot maintain six feet of distance from others when she receives treatment.

Melissa Ahlman, 32, is a plaintiff who said she fears contracting the virus and passing it on to her infant when she pumps milk. She said she has to wait in "crowded areas" with sick inmates to give the milk to nurses.

"I wonder what will happen if I get sick and it spreads to my baby through my milk," Ahlman said. "And I worry that I will get sick in here and not be able to come home to her."

The sheriff's department said they are working on a response.

(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)

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