His Immune System Is Compromised and He Spent Two Months in Jail Unable to Afford Bail
A man describes his ordeal in medical isolation while awaiting trial.
This March, 20-year-old Andrew Fuentes says he found himself locked in a medical isolation cell for six days without access to a phone, showers or reading materials, hoping to hear that he had tested negative for COVID-19. That was about two months after he turned himself in on felony charges, including assault, and right as the coronavirus pandemic upended Los Angeles County’s court and jail systems into a mess of delays and public health hazards.
A positive result for COVID-19 could be particularly dangerous for Fuentes. Two years ago, he had a bone marrow transplant to treat a dire lack of red and white blood cells and platelets caused by Severe Aplastic Anemia, his mother, Shannon Yliz, said. It left him with a compromised immune system, documents she provided from the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles show. “I’m thinking that my son is going to die,” she said in a phone call. She hadn’t heard from her son in days.
Fuentes spent over two months in jail awaiting a twice-delayed preliminary hearing—once by his own defense in the hope of gathering more evidence, and a second time because of the emergency coronavirus orders. A judge denied his March 24 request to isolate at home.
Fuentes’ case highlights a new reality for many held in custody during the COVID-19 epidemic. Unable to post bail, people accused of felony crimes are detained in notoriously overcrowded prisons awaiting trial and fearing a potential infection from the virus. Advocates say their right to a speedy trial is being eroded by the public health emergency, while officials argue the delays are necessary measures in unprecedented times.
Under emergency orders announced last week, people in California can be held on a felony offense for up to seven business days, versus the normal 48 hours, before being brought in for arraignment, where bail and terms of release are typically determined. The deadline for preliminary hearings, where a judge examines the merits of the prosecution’s evidence, has been extended from 10 to 30 business days, while criminal jury trials have been delayed by months.
“These people who are accused of crimes are presumed innocent and should be treated that way,” Ricardo Garcia, LA County’s chief public defender said. “If you’re poor and you can’t afford bail on these cases, you’re going to be in a much more dangerous and threatening environment because you don’t have the economic means to resolve the situation—and that is wrong.”
Court systems around the country are in a similar position. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has also issued an executive order suspending deadlines for criminal procedures.
“[Defendants] could effectively be sentenced to death while awaiting trial,” said Maryanne Kaishian, a lawyer with Brooklyn Defender Services, who is nervously monitoring the exploding coronavirus outbreak on Rikers Island jail complex in New York. “There’s no movement on their cases, there’s no way to fight their cases or litigate their cases and they are effectively just waiting to get sick.”
Fuentes, who was jailed on January 27, is accused of waiving a handgun and threatening to shoot someone during a road rage incident in Canyon Country, a small city near Los Angeles, according to the local district attorney’s office. Fuentes said some water bottles were thrown during the incident, but denies the felony charges and has pleaded not guilty.
His public defender, Anna Slotky Reitano, said she encouraged Fuentes to fight the charges, and to reject a 180-day plea deal. But family and friends were unable to scrap together his $85,000 bail, which included $35,000 for a resisting arrest charge in a separate case.
All this, of course, was before the pandemic made pleas for his release from the overcrowded LA County jail system all the more urgent. On March 30, LA County reported its first COVID-19 case among the jail population. As of April 16, 15 people in the jail system had tested positive, 943 were in group quarantine and 42 were in medical isolation. Meanwhile, 38 county sheriff’s department employees have tested positive, including an employee of Men’s Central Jail—where Fuentes was housed—who was placed in intensive care. “Our nation’s jails and prisons are a ticking time bomb,” Miriam Aroni Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor and executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, said in a statement. “We have already seen deaths and infection in the hundreds in these dense facilities where abiding by CDC guidelines is simply not possible.”
The public health hazards were coupled with confusion over incoming bail and court guidelines, said Slotky Reitano, Fuentes’ public defender. In a March 24 bail review hearing, Fuentes’ attorney petitioned for his release on house arrest, citing health concerns and arguing he did not pose a threat to the public. The judge reduced the bail on his felony charge by $1,000 to $49,000, Slotky Reitano said, assuming that the sheriff’s department would release Fuentes under new coronavirus guidelines. Those guidelines allow for the release of people detained on bail less than $50,000, but those charged with some felony offenses, like Fuentes, may remain locked up.
“I was going crazy in there just not being able to talk to my family or shower. I felt like I did something wrong telling them I was sick."
Around this time, Fuentes said, he was suffering from headaches and chest pain. On March 25, a doctor’s appointment landed him in isolation, where Fuentes said he remained until March 31. Fuentes said that once he was in medical isolation at the Twin Towers Jail, he was given what he presumed to be a COVID-19 test—a long cotton swab-like object pushed up his nose so it “felt like it was getting stuck in my eyes.” He was not explicitly told what the test was for. His mother said she received a call from Twin Towers on March 26 saying her son was in isolation and that he had been tested for COVID-19.
A sheriff’s office spokesperson would not comment on the details of Fuentes’ case, but information provided to public defenders by the sheriff’s department confirms Fuentes was in isolation on March 27, along with nine others. The Appeal could not independently confirm the entire length of his isolation.
“I was going crazy in there just not being able to talk to my family or shower. I felt like I did something wrong telling them I was sick,” Fuentes said in a phone call from jail, adding that he was told to take “bird baths” in the sink in place of showers. “They just stuck me in there and basically said ‘good luck.’” He said he was given a blanket and was repeatedly denied calls, though a phone was visible from his door. In a statement, the sheriff’s office said detainees are provided “individual time slots” for showers and phone calls while in isolation for the virus.
“My immune system is like a 2-year-old baby,” Fuentes added. “If I get sick I just hope my immune system is strong enough to fight it.” He said no one gave him his test results, but assumes he tested negative because he was released back into the general prison population at the Men’s Central Jail.
“If they’re in medical isolation obviously it’s a little bit more precarious than in the general population,” Sheriff Alex Villanueva said during a press conference, adding that prisoners in general quarantine are given two free phone calls. “The ones in medical isolation are a little more difficult because we are treating the person as a potential positive, and we have to have a defensible space around them to make sure they’re not going to spread that contagion to another inmate or other staff members.”
After his release from isolation, Fuentes said he finally showered using a bar of soap his cellmate traded for a box of apple juice.
Fuentes was bleary-eyed and sniffling when he was shuffled into court on April 7, wearing a blue jumpsuit accented by rosary beads and his neck tattoos. While his attorney, the deputy district attorney and Judge David Walgren all donned face masks, Fuentes’ face was uncovered as he repeatedly coughed. Walgren questioned his ability to afford house arrest, and ultimately declined his release. “You said he’s low income, doesn’t have money. How’s he going to pay for electronic monitoring?”
“We are requesting either house arrest [or] lower bail. He should not be forced to be in a situation where he could die because he’s protesting his innocence,” Slotky Reitano said before the court. “He’s being kept in custody and risking his life because he’s too poor to afford bail.”
Walgren did eliminate the $35,000 bail on Fuentes’ misdemeanor charge, but kept the $49,000 felony bail in place. “These are serious allegations and even in this chaotic time, the Supreme Court recognizes that not everyone should just be released on their own recognizance,” he said.
Walgren also delayed the actual preliminary hearing to April 28, siding with the district attorney’s office over the rejection of Fuentes’ defense—a move made possible by emergency orders issued by the California Judicial Council.
The judge’s decision to eliminate bail on his misdemeanor charge gave his family and friends just enough wiggle room to scrape bail together. If they didn’t, he would likely sit in jail for months more awaiting trial. Speaking from the bail bondsman’s office on a rainy Wednesday night, Shannon said she planned to sleep in her car in downtown Los Angeles to pick Fuentes up early the next morning. “I just cannot leave him in there anymore,” she said.