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As cases of COVID-19 in the Los Angeles County jail system spiked by nearly 60% in the span of a week, Sheriff Alex Villanueva today released surveillance video that he said is evidence that some inmates were intentionally trying to catch the coronavirus.

Villanueva released the video as justice reform activists have faulted authorities for failing to do enough to slow the spread of coronavirus among inmates.

The sheriff today reported that 357 inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus since the outbreak began and nearly 40% of the jail population is in quarantine. Among department employees, there are 107 positive cases and 320 deputies and non-sworn personnel have been quarantined. A total of 927 have recovered and returned to duty, according to the sheriff.

The video showed footage of inmates at the North County Correctional Facility passing around and drinking from a hot water dispenser used for ramen and hot drinks. Villanueva said that footage and other video surveillance "show inmates deliberately intending to infect themselves with the COVID-19 virus," Villanueva.

The behavior, which the sheriff said was captured by surveillance cameras in mid-April, took place immediately in advance of a nurse coming to do temperature checks on the inmates and could have also been designed to generate a higher reading, he said. 

"As a result of this behavior ... 21 inmates tested positive ... within a week," the sheriff told reporters. The North County Correctional Facility in Castaic had "extremely few cases ... then all of a sudden (the numbers) just shot up overnight," he said.

Villanueva said it was possible that criminal charges would be pursued against inmates seeking to spread the infection. Inmates mistakenly believed that they could force authorities to release more individuals from custody, according to the sheriff, who told reporters, "That's not gonna happen."

But one prominent advocate for criminal justice reform accused Villanueva of demonizing people behind bars and pushed for more people to be released.

"He is taking a page right out of Trump's playbook by gaslighting those who are already vulnerable and in absolute fear," said Patrice Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and founder of Dignity & Power Now. "Contrary to the sheriff's allegations, what I've been hearing from prisoners is that there isn't enough soap, there is no hot water, that sheriff deputies are taunting folks inside by coughing in their presence, telling them they're going to die of COVID."

More than 5,000 inmates awaiting trial on low-level offenses or close to serving their full sentence have been released from county jails to slow the spread of the coronavirus, bringing the population down from roughly 17,000 to about 11,700 individuals.

"We've done everything within our power to ... prevent the spread of COVID-19 within our jail system," Villanueva said.

The sheriff did not give a breakdown by jail facility, but the North County Correctional Facility had 166 reported cases, or nearly half of the total, according to a breakdown provided by the Department of Public Health as of Sunday.

In a separate midday briefing, Christina Ghaly, who manages Los Angeles County's hospital system and jail health care, confirmed that the increase in cases is concentrated in the Castaic facility. Ghaly said health care professionals were working with the sheriff to roll out additional testing and protective measures.

"Our Department of Health Services Correctional Health Services is working very closely with the Sheriff's Department to continue the quarantine and isolation measures that have been put in place there, as well as to encourage inmates to wear their cloth face coverings," Ghaly said. "We are also in the process of continuing to roll out testing ... including for all inmates at the point of entry."

Testing is now being done at booking to further limit the spread in the jails.

The Civilian Oversight Commission, a watchdog group established to oversee the Sheriff's Department, used its recently approved subpoena power last week to order the sheriff to attend its next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday. The agenda includes a discussion of the department's efforts to address the virus in the jails.

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