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Southern Center for Human Rights, ACLU File Motion for Preliminary Injunction to Require Clayton County Sheriff to Protect People in Jail from Escalating COVID-19 Outbreak

Today, the Southern Center for Human Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Georgia filed a motion in federal district court for preliminary injunctive relief in their lawsuit Jones v. Hill.

The lawsuit, filed on July 2, asks the Court to require Clayton County Sheriff, Victor Hill, to take immediate steps to prevent and mitigate the spread of the highly contagious virus that causes COVID-19 in the county jail. There is currently an outbreak of COVID-19 at the jail. At least 72 detainees have tested positive for the virus, in addition to at least 13 staff. Detainees are packed three people to two-person cells, with one person sleeping near an open toilet. They lack basic supplies to clean cells and resort to using bits of toilet paper, clothing items, and body soap in an attempt to sanitize in-cell surfaces. Elderly and medically vulnerable people have been denied masks, and directed instead to make their own out of towels, sheet scraps, or old underwear.

The preliminary injunction motion asks the court to compel the Sheriff’s Office to develop a plan in conjunction with public health experts, to address the outbreak. This plan would include, but is not limited to, the following measures.

  • educate, screen, and test people in custody
  • detect, monitor, document, and quarantine or isolate suspected or known cases of COVID-19 among detainees or staff members
  • maintain and provide adequate supplies of personal protective equipment and similar items, including clean and serviceable face coverings
  • facilitate at least six feet of distance between those in custody as well as staff
  • thoroughly clean and sanitize cells, common areas, and objects

The preliminary injunction motion also asks the court to compel Sheriff Hill to create a process through which certain medically vulnerable individuals can be evaluated for release, given the ever-increasing threat that the spread of COVID-19 presents in jail settings. 

“Everyone working at or living in the Clayton County Jail is now at risk of serious illness, or even death for those who are most medically vulnerable,” said Dr. Fred Rottnek, former medical director of the St. Louis County Jail, in an expert declaration. “The Clayton County Sheriff’s Office should take corrective action immediately in order to decrease the substantial risk of serious harm to detainees, staff, and the community at large.”

In their lawsuit, Plaintiffs assert that the Defendants’ disregard of the known risks of COVID-19 exposes people who are incarcerated at the jail to a highly infectious and potentially fatal disease, in violation of their rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as federal disability rights laws.

“Experts in public health and corrections all agree that common sense changes would allow the jail to dramatically reduce the risks of serious illness and death posed by COVID-19,” said Cody Cutting, Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “There is no reason not to make those changes, and no reason to delay.”

“A jail sentence should not be a death sentence, but during this pandemic, it is threatening to become one for the people held at Clayton County jail,” said Stephen Pevar, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “Sheriff Hill’s utter failure to take even basic steps to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19 — including holding people with COVID-19 symptoms in cells with seemingly healthy people, neglecting to provide masks, and failing to sanitize the cells and common areas — puts the health and safety of incarcerated people at an unacceptable level of risk. Of course, incarcerated people aren’t the only ones who will be impacted. Jail staff and the communities they return home to will also pay for this disregard for public health and human life.”

“Instead of taking meaningful action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the Clayton County Jail, the Clayton County Sheriff and his subordinates are taking actions that drastically increase the spread of this highly contagious disease,” says Kosha Tucker, staff attorney with the ACLU of GA. “Without injunctive relief from the court, people detained in the jail, as well as staff, will continue to be unnecessarily exposed to and infected by COVID-19.”

Read a copy of the motion; the brief in support of the motion; expert declarations from Nina H. Fefferman, PhD, Fred Rottneck, MD, and Emmitt Sparkman. Click here to read declarations from current and former detainees at the Clayton County Jail.