Public Records Lawsuit Filed After Clayton County Sheriff Refuses to Disclose Public Documents About Covid-19 in County Jail
On May 27, 2020, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the ACLU of Georgia filed a lawsuit under the Georgia Open Records Act against Victor Hill, the Sheriff of Clayton County, Georgia. The lawsuit alleges that Sheriff Hill violated the Georgia Open Records Act by declining to provide public documents showing, among other things: (1) the number of people who have tested positive for the coronavirus in the Clayton County Jail, and (2) the number of people who have been tested for the virus. SCHR has repeatedly requested these documents from the Sheriff’s Office over the course of one month.2020.05.27-Clayton-Cty.-ORA-Complaint-FINAL-FOR-FILING
As background, by late April 2020, many jails and prisons in Georgia (and across the country) had experienced significant outbreaks of Covid-19. SCHR sent public records requests to several jails around the state, as part of a larger effort to – specifically those that had not affirmatively published testing and infection data.
On April 29, SCHR sent a public records request to Sheriff Hill requesting records concerning the impact of the coronavirus pandemic at the Clayton County Jail. SCHR sent the request as part of a larger effort to understand how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting people in jails across Georgia. The records request sought no protected health or other private information. Instead, it sought records showing only raw numbers regarding Covid-19 testing and infections among Clayton County Jail detainees and staff members.
“There appears to be an outbreak of Covid-19 at this jail, and incarcerated people, their families, and the public have a right to know about it,” says SCHR managing attorney, Sarah Geraghty. “It is both illegal and wrong to withhold vital information about a public health crisis from members of the public.”
The Clayton County Sheriff’s Office responded to SCHR’s requests with a series of shifting representations. On May 4, the Sheriff’s Office claimed to have “no responsive documents/records.” On May 5, the Sheriff’s Office stated that it would provide the requested “statistical data” and was “working on a response.” Two days later, the Sheriff’s Office, citing no legal authority, declined to provide responsive documents, stating that it could not disclose information obtained by “accessing medical records.”
“The Clayton County Sheriff’s Office has a duty to the public to be transparent in its operations, and this duty is especially critical in light of the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Kosha Tucker, staff attorney with the ACLU of Georgia.
To date, despite the strong public interest in transparency (especially during a pandemic) Sheriff Hill has refused to make public any document that would show the effects of Covid-19 at the Clayton County Jail—even such basic information as the number of infected detainees. It’s critically important that this information be tracked and reported for effective prevention and mitigation efforts.