Updated:
May 21, 2020

Medically vulnerable people and people with disabilities detained at Shelby County Jail are at grave risk of severe injury or death from COVID-19.  An outbreak is already underway, and has infected hundreds of people living and working in the Jail. One staff member has died as a result. Social distancing is impossible, basic hygiene is deficient, and the jail isn’t properly screening, identifying cases, or quarantining people who have been exposed to the virus.

Because there is no way for vulnerable people to keep themselves safe in the Jail environment, and because local officials have failed to act properly, the only appropriate response is to release those who face grave illness and possible death if they remain in the Shelby County Jail to get sick. These failures are harming and will continue to harm Black people and other People of Color disproportionately: Recent analysis of CDC data shows that the COVID-19 mortality rate among Black Americans is 2.6 times that of white Americans. On any given day, Black people make up 86 percent of the population of the Shelby County Jail.

Being incarcerated under circumstances that jeopardize one’s health and safety is unconstitutional and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. We filed this lawsuit seeking the immediate release of medically-vulnerable people from the Shelby County Jail and to prevent serious illness and death.  This request is consistent with the uniform recommendations of public health experts and epidemiologists. Most people in the Shelby County Jail are there pretrial and can be safely released to await future court dates from their homes, including with supervision and supports if necessary.

Urgent action is needed to prevent significant harm to those incarcerated and the surrounding community. Unchecked, rampant outbreaks of COVID-19 in jails, like the one under way in the Shelby County Jail, will harm everyone, most devastatingly the incarcerated people facing the greatest harms in violation of their rights.   This lawsuit was filed with the ACLU of Tennessee, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, Just City, and attorneys Brice Timmons and Steven Mulroy.

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