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California inmates tried to infect themselves with coronavirus in hopes of release, sheriff says

Sheriff Alex Villanueva said that there is a mistaken belief that contracting the virus is a way to get released from custody.

A group of Los Angeles County inmates deliberately tried to infect themselves with the coronavirus in a mistaken belief they would be released if they were sick, the sheriff said Monday.

Video released Monday by Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva appeared to show inmates at North County Correctional Facility in Castaic drinking from the same bottle of hot water and taking turns breathing through the same mask.

Villanueva called the behavior disturbing.

"As a direct result of the behavior seen in the video, 21 men tested positive for COVID-19 within a week," he said in a statement.

The sheriff said a spike in cases in mid-April prompted officials to review the surveillance video.

"Somehow there was some mistaken belief among the inmate population that if they tested positive that there was a way to force our hand and somehow release more inmates out of our jail environment — and that's not going to happen," Villanueva said.

All 21 people who tested positive were from the same module where the video was taken, Villanueva said. In all, the module had about 50 inmates.

Officials believe the inmates were using the hot water to raise their temperatures — fever is a symptom of the disease, Villanueva said.

All inmates have access to their own cup and the hot water dispenser, and there is no reason for them to share, he said.

None of the inmates admitted to trying to infect themselves or raise their temperature, Villanueva said.

Villanueva said the behavior imperiled the safety of other inmates as well as staff.

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In March, the sheriff announced that some inmates had been released early and that police departments had been asked to cite rather than arrest some offenders as ways to keep jail populations low.

The process, which began in February, resulted in a reduction of about 5,000 inmates, from more than 17,000 to around 11,700, Villanueva said Monday.

"Had this pandemic swept through while we were sitting on 17,000 inmates, the results would have been catastrophic," Villanueva said.

As of Monday 4,590 inmates have been quarantined within the Los Angeles County jail system, 317 of whom were isolated, the sheriff's department says.

There have been 357 inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19, but 117 have since been classified as fully recovered, according to the department. Inmates have to have two negative tests before being allowed to return to general population, Villanueva said.

Villanueva said that the department is doing everything within its power to prevent the spread of the virus in the jail system, including now testing all inmates entering the system.

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