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Civil Rights Groups File Federal Lawsuit Against Clayton County Sheriff for Failure to Protect People in Jail from Escalating COVID-19 Outbreak

Last night, the Southern Center for Human Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Georgia filed a lawsuit in federal district court on behalf of four people incarcerated at the Clayton County Jail. The named defendants include the Clayton County Sheriff and several subordinates in his office.

The lawsuit asserts that Defendants’ disregard of the known risks of COVID-19 and its attendant illness and death exposes people who are incarcerated at the county jail to a highly fatal, infectious disease in violation of their rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as federal disability rights laws.

With nearly 2,000 detainees, the Clayton County Jail, located about 20 miles south of Atlanta, is the second most populous jail in Georgia. It is also the site of a growing COVID-19 outbreak. According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, as of June 11, 2020, 45 people at the jail had tested positive for COVID-19 (32 detainees and 13 staff members). The outbreak is escalating, with 16 new positive tests in the first eight days of June alone.

Plaintiff Randolph Mitchell is 72 years old and has a chronic heart condition. He is serving a 12-month sentence for a misdemeanor. During the first several months of the pandemic, Mr. Mitchell was refused a jail-issued mask; he instead wore a homemade mask made from underwear, which he purchased from another detainee in exchange for two packets of soup.

Plaintiff Rhonda Jones is 58 years old and has chronic pulmonary obstructive disorder. She is awaiting trial and cannot afford to purchase her release on bail. She has been hospitalized twice for pneumonia in the past year. As the third person in a cell built for two, Ms. Jones sleeps on the floor near a puddle of foul-smelling water that leaks from the toilet. In a statement provided to the court, Ms. Jones stated: “I am scared that I could get sick and die from the coronavirus at this jail.”

More than three months into a global coronavirus pandemic that has killed over 125,000 Americans, Defendant Victor Hill, the sheriff of Clayton County, and his subordinates have done little to protect the jail’s detainees.

· The jail’s population is at 96% of its stated capacity, with three people crammed into two-person cells. (The third person sleeps on the floor near an open toilet.)

· Efforts to identify and isolate infected persons are haphazard at best. When people report symptoms consistent with COVID-19—such as fever, shortness of breath, coughing, and vomiting—jailers often leave them unaided in overcrowded cells for days.

· The cells where detainees spend most of their time are almost never appropriately cleaned—even after a person becomes infected. The only cleaning materials provided regularly are a broom and a dirty mop. Some detainees resort to using their four-ounce weekly supply of liquid soap (meant for showering and personal hygiene) and bits of toilet paper to wipe down their cells.

· Until June, few detainees had jail-issued facemasks, and many detainees still lack them.

· Although COVID-19 is spreading throughout the jail, jailers have provided virtually no information to detainees about COVID-19 symptoms, vulnerabilities, or prevention.

For many detainees, the sum total of the Defendants’ prevention effort has been to tell them to use a towel, t-shirt, sock, or underwear as a makeshift facemask, and to limit their out-of-cell time. On a daily basis, detained people are forced into close proximity to others, with no physical distancing during meal distribution, medication distribution, video court, and other out-of-cell activities.

“The outbreak at the Clayton County Jail poses an immediate threat not only to the nearly 2,000 people incarcerated within—who are beloved mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons—but also to those beyond the jail’s walls,” said Cody Cutting, Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Due to the constant churn of people in and out of local jails, the health of a community during a pandemic is only as strong as the health of those detained in its jail.”

“People detained in jails are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 because of the close spaces in which they are confined, the shared use of facilities without adequate sanitation or effective personal protective equipment, and the absence of adequate medical care to address or treat the spread of infection,” said Kosha Tucker, staff attorney for the ACLU of Georgia. “Without meaningful action to address the risks posed by COVID-19, people in custody at the Clayton County Jail are in mortal jeopardy.”

Jails have become a significant source for the virus’s spread to the wider community. The ACLU released an epidemiological model in April, showing that COVID-19 infections in jails are correlated with increased outbreaks and deaths in surrounding communities. Reducing the number of people brought into a jail, on the other hand, can reduce these risks.

The lawsuit was filed as a putative class action and is pending in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. Plaintiffs’ counsel are assisted by Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP.