Advocates Reach Agreement with Shelby County Sheriff to Fix Dangerous Pandemic Jail Conditions

April 9, 2021 4:30 pm

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today a federal judge approved an agreement reached between local and national civil rights advocates and the Shelby County sheriff to improve jail conditions to protect people from widespread infection, serious injury and death from COVID-19.

The agreement guarantees that the jail will implement rigorous monitoring and reporting; additional jail inspections; improved airflow and ventilation measures to keep people safe from airborne transmission of COVID-19; better quality protective equipment for people being detained in the jail; continued efforts to expedite release for those who are disabled and medically vulnerable; improved social distancing; and other enhancements that will better protect people living and working in the facility.

In Judge Sheryl Halle Lipman’s statements from the bench during the hearing, she stated that she believed it to be in the community’s interest to stop the spread of COVID and that the measures put in place in the facility are designed to do that. She said the point is to get as many safety features into the jail as possible and keep detainees as safe as possible. The judge went on to say that containing the spread of coronavirus helps within the facility as well as the community, and that the effort put in to reach and protect the safety of the detainees is in the public interest and critically important.

The agreement was reached in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee; the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation; Just City; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; and attorneys Brice Timmons and Steve Mulroy on behalf of people incarcerated at the Shelby County Jail.

The lawsuit followed a court order that urged the jail to address numerous public health lapses identified after two expert inspectors — one appointed by the court — issued reports expressing alarm at the tactics employed at the jail to contain the virus. Among the horrid conditions the inspectors found at the jail were a failure to test new arrestees, even those displaying COVID-19 symptoms; open airflow between areas of the facility where COVID-positive and quarantined people were detained and areas where others who have not been exposed to the virus were detained; a lack of fresh masks; staff wearing masks below their chins when speaking; and inadequate availability of cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and free soap.

Most of the named plaintiffs in the case are at high risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19, including a pretrial detainee with progressive multiple sclerosis and heart disease who takes an immunosuppressant to manage his multiple sclerosis; a person held pretrial at the jail with diabetes and hypertension; and another pretrial detainee with hypertension and an irregular heartbeat, who previously had a heart attack. They alleged that the jail temporarily made improvements to certain conditions in preparation for the inspections by a court-appointed inspector and knowingly allowed those improvements to lapse shortly after the inspections occurred, putting the lives of those who live and work at the facility at risk.

“This case and agreement shine a light on conditions in the Shelby County Jail and how officials there are responding to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Andrea Woods, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “While the work will continue, we applaud the court’s approval and commitment to ensuring that inspections and other monitoring continue until the pandemic is over.”

“This agreement could quite literally mean the difference between life and death for our clients and many others who live and work at the Shelby County Jail, and in the wider Memphis community,” said Stella Yarbrough, ACLU of Tennessee staff attorney. “Far too many people are held in conditions that daily threaten their health, safety, and human dignity, especially during this pandemic, and we are relieved that conditions at the jail will now be improved.”

Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, stated, “In Shelby County, the number of presumed innocent people being held in cages is extraordinarily high. This settlement will bring some much-needed accountability to those responsible for their well-being, but the real work is only beginning – we must break our community’s addiction to pretrial detention.”

“This case sparked jail improvements and continued monitoring which would not have occurred without our filing,” said University of Memphis law professor and former Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers. “It’s helped protect the health of thousands of Shelby Countians, most of whom have not been convicted of any crime.”


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