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New Riverside County jail pandemic plan mandates 10% reduction in capacity

Jails in Riverside County will need to reduce overall capacity by 10% in three facilities to provide an opportunity for physical distancing under a new plan designed to ensure inmates and staff are protected from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

The county is currently in compliance with the measure since the average population of inmates in its jail system has plummeted about 16% since February, according to data reported to the state. However, once the order takes effect, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department will have to maintain a reduction of about 300 beds in their group housing units until the pandemic passes.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said the plan, which he said was drafted in collaboration with the department's attorneys, is an account of the work that has been done by deputies and county health workers to ensure inmates and staff are safe.  

"Our number one priority is the safety of inmates and staff," Bianco said. "What is in the plan is not a result of arbitration, it's an account of what we've already been doing."

The Riverside County Sheriff's Department, a civil rights attorney and several of the county's health departments and their lawyers agreed to the Riverside Jails COVID-19 Response Plan after about three months of court-ordered mediation related to a 2016 case that raised concerns about inmate access to health care.

The filing, which is being reviewed by a federal district court judge, outlines requirements for:

  • physical distancing, including an average reduction of about 30% in group housing capacity across three of the county’s jails;
  • prioritizing the release and electronic monitoring for vulnerable inmates;
  • testing of all newly booked people; 
  • surveillance testing of potential asymptomatic carriers;
  • and a strict cleaning and hygiene regimen with particular attention to the unique threat the virus poses to incarcerated people.

Sara Norman — who is an attorney with the nonprofit inmate advocacy group Prison Law Office —  and representatives for the County of Riverside (the defendant in the 2016 case) agreed to the plan last week after a previous attempt failed.

Central District of California Chief Judge Virginia Phillips found the county's first plan to be lacking and ordered them back to the drawing board.

"Defendant did not have information regarding conditions in the existing county jail facilities, insisted that moving prisoners to a newly completed, empty jail in Indio was not feasible, and admitted that it had not researched alternative housing options such as recreation centers, halfway houses, and hotels," Phillips wrote in her April 14 order.

Throughout the pandemic, the county and the sheriff's department have been tight-lipped about the threat of the virus to those in the jail system. The sheriff's department has reported the deaths of two deputies and two inmates.

The county reports only the total number of inmates confirmed to have the virus and diagnosed while housed in the jail system — 271 reported as of Tuesday, with 207 having recovered.

Bianco has questioned the ultimate intentions of the court proceeding, claiming it is not necessary and is motivated by an agenda to free inmates. He rejected the first plan drafted by the county's attorneys.

"The Prison Law Office is abusing the judicial system to order the release of inmates," Bianco said in April. "We're not going to do it."

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco provides update on the Perris triple homicide investigation during a news conference at the Riverside County Sheriff's Perris station on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020. Three adult males bodies were found yesterday at the Perris Valley Cemetery.

The consent decree ordered during the resolution of Norman's case against the county in 2016 established ongoing monitoring of inmate health care and mental health services. 

Having filed the suit on behalf of all inmates, she asked Riverside County in March how they were preparing the county's jail system for the coronavirus, but she said she found the lack of information she received in response "incredibly concerning."

"I couldn't get clear answers from the county," Norman said. "I knew they had positive cases and they had deaths, but they wouldn't tell me what they were doing to address and prepare for the pandemic."

Monday’s filing provides a more thorough accounting of what has and will be done to prevent further spread and a more detailed picture of how conditions in the jails have changed during the pandemic.

The newly built Riverside County Jail is on Highway 111 in the downtown area of Indio.

Ensuring ability for social distancing

The county currently operates four jails, with the new John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio being used only as a holding facility for inmates waiting to be booked into another facility for longer periods of time.

The loss of full capacity at the Indio Jail, currently being demolished, has not hindered the department’s ability to physically distance inmates. The jails are currently in compliance since the jail population has plummeted since the onset of the pandemic.

The California Board of State and Community Corrections reported on July 11, the most recent data available, that Riverside County’s jail system had an average of about 3,200 inmates that week, about a 16% reduction from the 3,800 incarcerated the last week of February, before the virus began entering jails around the state.

The reduction of the county’s average inmate population can be attributed to the April decision by the administrators of the California superior court system to eliminate the cost of bail for many non-violent offenses and misdemeanors, as well as early releases for some who were near the end of their sentences.

Bianco has expressed frustration with this zero bail policy, at one point saying in an April 17 video posted to the department’s social media that the policy was endangering the county and asking residents to voice their opposition to elected officials.

Despite the sheriff’s criticism, the plan states the "zero bail policies" have "had a positive effect on physical distancing."

The inmates who remain incarcerated are either housed in one- or two-person cells or have been placed in groups of four, sharing dorm housing and the use of dayrooms, telephones, showers and toilets.

By April 22, the department eliminated about 300 beds in the open dayroom and dorm housing units of three facilities, to allow inmates housed there adequate room to social distance.

  • The Cois Byrd Detention Center in Murrieta has a maximum designed capacity of 1,159; 40 of these beds have been eliminated.
  • The Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility in Banning has a maximum capacity of 1,520; 220 have been eliminated.
  • The Blythe Jail has a maximum capacity of 115 beds; 32 have been eliminated.

The plan adds that with the reduced population, the jail system has a reserve of 1,000 vacant beds should bookings increase, in which case electronic monitoring options and release of low-level inmates would be utilized to ensure distancing among inmates.

This Desert Sun file photo shows the Larry D. Smith Correctional Facility in Banning. A Cathedral City family filed a wrongful death lawsuit after a relative died in custody last year.

The Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside houses inmates in two-person cells, no reduction of capacity was needed to meet physical distancing requirements there.

All five of the facilities are able to hold inmates until the booking process is complete, only one inmate is placed in a holding cell at a time, according to the plan, and they are cleaned after each use.

Inmate advocates have been particularly concerned about social distancing among inmates who are vulnerable to the virus — those who are ages 65 or older or who have a medical condition that increases their risk. 

This group of inmates received priority consideration, the plan states, for the county’s Secure Electronic Confinement Program, a form of electronic monitoring, and those who remain in custody are housed in one- and two-man cells.

Testing an increasing priority, but voluntary

The plan outlines a testing regimen for staff, inmates and new bookings that includes asymptomatic testing aimed at reducing the spread of the virus among the jail population. 

All newly booked inmates — whether showing symptoms or not — and all inmates who are showing symptoms are tested for the virus, the plan states. All inmates who have been in close contact with a positive case also are tested within 14 days. Newly booked inmates are quarantined while awaiting their test results.

Jail administrators conducted mass testing of 2,856 inmates between May 28 and May 30. Only inmates who consented were tested, and data reported to the state shows there was an average of 3,077 inmates incarcerated that week, so about 200 inmates likely refused tests.

Of the 2,856 tested, 43 tested positive and 2,709 tested negative, it was not made clear in the plan what the results of the remaining 100 tests were.

As a result of this increase in testing and other measures, no inmates have been admitted to the hospital for coronavirus related issues, the plan states, since June 2.

Inmates in the vulnerable population are monitored by medical staff and are offered a test every two weeks. Inmates in the general population are offered a test every four weeks. None of the inmates are forced to take tests if they are not showing symptoms.

Testing among the staff is also a priority of the plan, with two deputies employed by the department having died of complications related to COVID-19 and staff being potential carriers of the virus into the jails from outside.

All staff who are symptomatic are told to stay home and report that they are sick to their supervisor, according to the plan. The county provides free testing to all jail staff at each facility during work hours, but the tests are voluntary.

The county maintains a position, according to the plan, that compelling staff to undertake tests is a violation of their union agreements, and must be "entirely voluntary in nature."

Sanitation, hygiene and frequent cleaning...

Norman identified inmate sanitation and hygiene as an early concern when requesting that the judge grant the emergency order. Reporting by The Desert Sun showed that family and friends of the county’s incarcerated had received information from inside the jails that inmates were not being provided with proper cleaning supplies early in the pandemic.

The plan mandates that newly booked inmates receive two cloth masks and are told to wear one at all times, except when they are in their cells, and are required to clean one mask each day when they return from their time in the dayroom. The mask policy was enacted on April 4.

Inmates are provided with a free bar of soap three times a week and are trained on how to wash their hands properly. Center for Disease Control educational materials were added to information televised to inmates.

Jail staff wearing gloves and masks serve inmates their meals on disposable styrofoam plates, and inmates eat their meals in their bunks. Inmate workers clean and disinfect all common areas, including tables, phones, toilets, showers and door handles, after every meal.

Deputies spray a disinfectant solution on all common areas during every other security check, which is noted on a log and verified by video recording. The new cleaning regimen was established on April 27.

Is it enough?

Some of the most detailed sections of the plan are related to behavioral health, not just for those who are identified as having a mental illness, but for those who are struggling with the unique stresses of being incarcerated during a pandemic and the increased restriction implemented in the jails as a result. 

Since visitation has been canceled, the plan states, all inmates are provided with free phone calls.

Clinical therapists monitor and treat at-risk inmates and telepsychiatry services are available for those who need them. However, technological difficulties with the psychiatry services at the Murietta and Banning facilities were reported in the plan.

Both parties have recommended that a judge order the plan to take effect, which is currently being considered. After which, it will stay in effect for as long as “medically necessary,” or until the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation determines that the coronavirus emergency in its facilities has ended. 

"None of us has any idea what is enough in the face of the pandemic," Norman said. "Based on the information available to me, this plan, when fully implemented, represents a fighting chance at trying to prevent the pandemic from raging behind bars."

Desert Sun reporter Christopher Damien covers crime, public safety and the criminal justice system. He can be reached at or follow him at @chris_a_damien.