Being a deputy sheriff or correctional deputy in Riverside County, California, could be a death sentence for the men and women who serve in one of the toughest assignments in law enforcement. Yes, working custody in the jails of Riverside County is harder now than ever. The same can be said for every jail in America. The coronavirus may have just turned the jails into a incubator for the pandemic.

The Sheriff’s Department, one of America’s largest, in America’s 10th largest county, has already lost two of its more than 3,000 team members to the coronavirus with many more infected with this potentially deadly disease.

Enter Central District of California Chief Judge Virginia Phillips who said she’s not satisfied with the measures outlined to control the coronavirus in the jail system.

She is, by most accounts a nice person. Practiced law in Riverside and even graduated from the University of California at Riverside. She knows Riverside’s history with the federal and state courts when it comes to jails and inmate accommodations.

To nobody’s surprise, California legislators have passed many inmate- and prisoner-oriented laws. In fact, the laws stacked end to end reach about 4 to 5 feet high. A County Sheriff has to follow those laws. His or her oath demands it.

The justice is well aware that a federal order imposed on Riverside County requires all inmates to have a bed to sleep in while awaiting trial or serving time. With 2.5 million people to protect and defend, some 3,000 folks are in the county jail each and every day.

She knows that  every  Sheriff who’s held office since that permanent order was issued commutes sentences ( let’s the inmates out of jail early) each day to manage the inmate population. So a gang sweep happens on a Friday and the lower level offender goes free to have a bed for a gang member. That’s just life for a sheriff running a jail in Riverside County, Calif.

So Judge Phillips, reacting to litigation by a pro inmate lawyer, doesn’t like how Sheriff Chad Bianco and his team are “treating” those in the jails during this virus mess.

County jails weren’t designed to be prisons. When the state dumped its overcrowding prison populations on 58 counties a few years back, it made the job of deputy sheriff or correctional deputy a lot harder and more dangerous.

Bianco is a strong leader. He cares about the safety of all his team members. He is also doing his best to manage the pandemic in his five jails. With 3000-plus inmates in jail, he is busy. If Sheriff Bianco was a hotelier he would have some 1,095,000 room night stays per year.

While the federal courts went big on social distancing from the first signs of coronavirus and shut down your county, state and federal courts, county and city jails can’t do that. They run 24-7 and 365 days a year.

Sheriffs like Chad Bianco can’t or won’t just empty out jails so the inmates can social distance and descend on communities to possibly reoffend. Many of those in your county jails were convicted or accepted plea deals. Others await trial for alleged crimes.

So, will Judge Phillips order a release of inmates to ensure social distancing? She says she doesn’t like the sheriff’s plan to manage the virus. Will the judge protect your deputies?

Will she order the families of law enforcement professionals be given personal protective equipment so they are safe from possible exposure to the virus? Who will file litigation to protect our deputies?

Judges have lifelong appointments in the federal court system. They serve as long as they want. They are bound by the law and should refrain from making it up as they go along.

Jails are expensive, they cost the hard-working taxpayers millions to run. Inmate healthcare costs millions more. Inmates are in jail because they broke the law or are awaiting trial. They serve a period of time that a Superior Court Judge has sentenced them to after a jury  convicted them or, in some cases, they skipped a trial and worked out a plea bargain.

Jail and prison reforms are in progress. Early releases, rehabilitations, successful appeals and  DNA have freed many. Nobody wants to see the innocent jailed or imprisoned.  We believe the punishment must fit the crime. That’s not who we are as a nation. We mean it when we say our Pledge of Allegiance, which calls for “liberty  and justice for all.”

These are very difficult times for everyone. Sheriff Bianco has proven he is up to the task and is leading in tough times from the front. The federal courts and those who hand down decisions must also ensure justice doesn’t commute sentences for inmates while sacrificing the health, safety, and lives of law enforcement and the general public.

Judge Philips is a respected jurist. We don’t agree with all her rulings. Far from it. But she needs to consider all sides and be practical. Social distancing in a jail is impossible. Soap, Purell, covering the sneeze or cough, and some forms of personal protective gear are a must. Just protect those who protect and serve and care for them as much as the inmates and we will get through this pandemic.


Image Sources

  • Riverside County Sheriff Department: Riverside County Sheriff Department