LOS ANGELES (AP) — Two groups of inmates at a Los Angeles County jail tried to infect themselves with the coronavirus by sharing water and a mask, and within two weeks, 30 prisoners tested positive, according to the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva, at a briefing, showed surveillance videos from two dormitory units at the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic.
The footage captured inmates in one unit sharing a container of hot water and others in a second unit sniffing a mask.
Two of the 30 inmates, one from each unit, were later released from the jail as part of the department’s effort to reduce the prisoner population systemwide, according to Bruce Chase, the department’s assistant sheriff of custody operations.
Villanueva said the inmates used hot water to try to raise their temperatures just before a nurse checked them. An elevated temperature is a symptom for coronavirus.
The sheriff said the inmates mistakenly believed that if they were infected they would be freed.
“It’s dismaying and it’s disheartening,” he said.
None of the 30 inmates required critical care when they were sick, though some had moderate symptoms, Chase said. No prisoners within the county’s jail system — the largest in the country — have died from the virus.
Deputies had been reviewing surveillance video, trying to see if the inmates were socially distancing and using their masks when “lo and behold, we stumbled across footage that was very troubling to us,” Chase said.
"There was plenty of space in which to observe physical distancing, however, the men chose to interact close to each other, making their intentions obvious," the LASD said in a statement later.
The mid-April video showed a group of inmates passing around a mask and sniffing it. As authorities were investigating that incident, they found out about a second case where inmates were sipping from the same container of water in late April.
Within two weeks, 21 inmates in the water container case had COVID-19 and nine prisoners from the mask incident were sick, Chase said.
He said there’s no evidence the mask or water container came from an infected inmate, and the prisoners may have just been trying to spread the virus if they had it. No inmates have admitted to a scheme.
Chase said his deputies need to better educate the inmates about the virus and the severity of their actions.
“We’re responsible for their care,” Chase said. “That includes protecting them from themselves.”