Federal Court Denies Emergency Release of People in Shelby County Jail Most Vulnerable to COVID-19
Court Acknowledges Continuing Concerns and Encourages Jail to Correct Them
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – A federal judge today denied the emergency release of medically vulnerable people, including people with disabilities, detained at the Shelby County jail who are at high risk of severe injury or death from COVID-19. In its decision, the court noted, “failures with how the Jail is detaining medically vulnerable detainees amid this pandemic,” but asserted that many of these problems could be fixed, noting that the jail had taken steps to correct some of the health risks raised by the lawsuit.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee; the American Civil Liberties Union; Just City; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP; and attorneys Brice Timmons and Steve Mulroy filed the federal class action lawsuit on behalf of people incarcerated at the jail who were at particular risk of contracting COVID-19.
The lawsuit led to an inspection by a court-appointed, independent inspector who found that Wellpath, the company providing health care in the facility, had a COVID-19 response plan that was “inadequate to protect the vulnerable inmates,” noting issues with compromised quarantining upon entry to the jail and insufficient social distancing within the jail.
As a result of the inspection, the jail changed some of its practices, including limiting the number of detainees brought to court and how they were being held while awaiting hearings to prevent co-mingling between potentially quarantined and non-quarantined inmates; increasing the availability and use of videoconference access to hearings; providing cleaning supplies for sanitizing individual and common areas; and insuring all detainees wear masks and imposing social distancing where possible throughout the jail.
The court’s decision states, “However, despite these efforts, grave areas of concern persist. As for sleeping arrangements, the facts found by the Court indicate that detainees do sleep within less than 6 feet of each other, contrary to the CDC guidelines. … detainees do not socially distance during mealtimes. … Also, while detainees are given their medications one-by-one during pill call, they are lined together without social distancing. … Requiring medically-vulnerable detainees to receive their medications by waiting in a crowded line is a cruel ask.” The court also noted its particular concern with the failure to consider detainees’ medical conditions when making bond decisions.
“But,” the court continued, “to the extent these public health failures persist, they too can be easily remedied. … it behooves the Jail to work creatively toward improving these conditions.”
The following are reactions to today’s decision:
Andrea Woods, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union: “When this lawsuit was filed, jail officials were failing to provide even the most basic measures to ensure the safety of those incarcerated in the Shelby County Jail. The jail was not providing drinking water, and people were forced to drink out of a toilet. This ruling acknowledges the cruelty of Shelby County’s treatment of incarcerated people, and we will continue to press so such grave misconduct does not reoccur with impunity.”
Stella Yarbrough, ACLU of Tennessee staff attorney: “This ruling does not change the fact that our clients are at serious risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus. While this decision falls short of our goal of releasing those most vulnerable to injury or death, it does acknowledge that there are still serious areas of concern within the jail and encourages the jail to continue addressing them. As public health experts have repeatedly warned, jails are hotbeds for infection and the virus can rapidly spread from jails into surrounding communities. The ACLU of Tennessee will continue using every advocacy tool at our disposal to push for the safe and thoughtful release of incarcerated people to protect public health.”
Attorney Brice Timmons: “Justice and humanity demand that we continue our work to hold the sheriff accountable. He has a duty to protect the community, including those in his custody.”
Attorney Steve Mulroy: “We’re disappointed that medically vulnerable people who pose no danger to the community and who have been convicted of no crime must still stay in a medically unsafe environment. But we’re glad the court recognizes that conditions at the jail were severely lacking before we filed suit; that improvements have been made as a result of our suit; and, most importantly, that much more still can and should be done to eliminate unnecessary pandemic risks at the jail. We call upon the county to heed the judge’s suggestions to promptly correct the serious problems there.”
Joseph J. Bial, lead counsel for the Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP team: “As the court recognized in its order today, our lawsuit prompted the sheriff to improve the conditions in which the medically vulnerable are housed at the jail. The lawsuit voiced the concerns of these individuals and helped open the public’s eyes to the unsafe conditions. Nonetheless, we believe those improvements fall short of what is necessary and that the sheriff can reasonably do more to make these medically vulnerable individuals safe during this difficult and extraordinary time. We continue to consider our next steps.”
As of July 31, a total of 225 incarcerated people and 131 employees at the jail had tested positive for COVID-19, and one jail employee and one incarcerated person had died. Statewide, the greatest number of deaths from the virus have occurred in Shelby County. According to the latest report available, 83 percent of inmates at the Shelby County Jail were there pretrial.
As a recent epidemiological model demonstrates, an outbreak at the jail could spread widely in the community, draining the Memphis area of limited resources to fight the pandemic.
The lawsuit, Busby v. Bonner, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.
Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.
The Latest in Smart Justice
The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.
Learn More About Smart Justice
The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice is an unprecedented, multiyear effort to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50% and to challenge racism in the criminal legal system.