Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer has confirmed LA county’s first known case of a jail inmate dying due to COVID-19, and data released by the Department of Public Health showed two deaths, one at Men’s Central Jail and one at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.

The confirmed deaths drew a strong reaction from Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and chairperson of Reform LA Jails. 

Cullors, who was born in Los Angeles and raised in Pacoima, formed BLM in 2013 along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman after he fatally shot unarmed African American teenager Treason Martin in Sanford, Fla., in 2012. Zimmerman had claimed self-defense as cause for the shooting. Cullors also drew inspiration from the result of her then 19-year-old brother being brutalized while imprisoned in LA county jail.

The movement has since grown to more than 40 chapters globally.

“I think our target has been law enforcement, and that has been important because black folks not only are killed with impunity, but also black folks are some of the most marginalized and vulnerable communities in this country,” Cullors told reporters in 2017. “We believe if we can actually get real accountability in this country around mass criminalization, we could start to change the other apparatuses inside this country.”

In March of this year, Cullors helped push for the passage of Measure R, which granted subpoena power to a watchdog civilian commission monitoring the Sheriff’s Department.

On Monday, June 1, she released a statement critical of Villanueva and the overcrowded conditions of jails during the pandemic.

“Condolences, thoughts and prayers are not enough, the statement said. “One of our incarcerated brothers died tonight from COVID-19 while Los Angeles is protesting brutality by law enforcement. Tonight, we mourn alongside the friends and family and loved ones of an Angeleno lost too soon. We are seeing the consequences of Sheriff Villanueva’s inaction. This is what we mean when we say: this is life or death. 

“We know there are likely other COVID related deaths in jail that have not been reported and we know this is why we can’t stop. Universal testing is just the beginning. The conditions of Los Angeles County jails will only lead to more suffering, disease, and death. Sheriff Villanueva must drastically reduce the jail population,” the statement read.

In a separate statement, a department spokesperson for Villanueva directed blame for the death more toward inadequate COVID-19 testing of inmates.

“After weeks of advocacy and community engagement, universal testing is finally occurring in all LA County jail facilities, where already 60% of incarcerated individuals have already tested positive for COVID-19,” the statement read. “Sheriff Villanueva has been a strong believer of herd immunity, and this irresponsible tactic just took a life. Sadly, more people will die if no other changes are made.”

On Wednesday, June 3, The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reported that 297 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since the coronavirus pandemic began, along with 1,982 jail inmates.

According to statistics released Wednesday, 416 department employees are currently quarantined, and 1,564 have returned to work after being quarantined. In the jail system, 5,197 inmates are currently quarantined, and 235 are in isolation.

Of those in isolation, 172 have tested positive and the remainder have been tested, but results were pending.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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