Groups File Lawsuit Against Shelby County Jail Seeking Release of Those Most At Risk of COVID

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
May 20, 2020 2:00 pm

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. – 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 a federal class action lawsuit today against the Shelby County sheriff’s office on behalf of people incarcerated at the jail. The lawsuit seeks emergency action to protect medically vulnerable people, including people with disabilities, detained at the jail who are at high risk of severe injury or death from COVID-19.

The lawsuit asks for identification of medically vulnerable individuals held at the jail and the immediate release of vulnerable people, most immediately those who are detained solely on the basis of their inability to satisfy a financial condition of pretrial release, or solely on the basis of a technical violation of probation or parole unless the county demonstrates that an individual poses a flight or safety risk.

“Public health experts agree that, in light of these unprecedented circumstances, jail officials must act swiftly to protect those most vulnerable to serious illness or death from COVID-19,” said Andrea Woods, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Jails are among the highest-risk environments for the virus, so the threat posed to people incarcerated and working in the Shelby County Jail is severe. Failure to act will yield more infections, hospitalizations and deaths in both the jail and the larger Memphis community.”

As of April 30, 192 people at the jail had tested positive for COVID-19, and one jail employee had died. Statewide, the greatest number of deaths from the virus have occurred in Shelby County. According to the latest report available, 86 percent of inmates at the Shelby County Jail were there pretrial.

“As public health experts have consistently warned, jails are dangerous incubators for this disease – threatening the health of those who live and work behind bars as well as their surrounding communities,” said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU of Tennessee legal director. “Incarceration should not be a death sentence.”

The CDC notes that social distancing of at least six feet between people to limit exposure is a “cornerstone” of prevention, and further recommends hygienic measures such as frequent handwashing and wearing face coverings. The lawsuit alleges that people incarcerated at the jail are forced to live, sleep, and eat in close proximity to each other, are not provided with appropriate sanitation and protective measures, and are unable to access critical medical resources, placing them at extraordinary risk of infection with a potentially fatal disease.

“It is especially cruel that most of the people at great risk of infection in the jail would not be there if they had financial resources,” added Josh Spickler, executive director at Just City. “Now is the time for Shelby County to end money bail, significantly reduce its jail population, and focus on protecting the entire community from this deadly virus.”

According to the lawsuit, the jail has failed to uphold constitutional and statutory minimum requirements, putting people behind bars – as well as jail staff and the community at large – at unacceptable risk of serious complications and death from COVID-19.

“The Shelby County Jail’s response to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in its facility has been a case study in ignoring a problem in hopes that it goes away,” said attorney Brice Timmons. “Inmates and guards have been infected by the hundreds. One guard is dead, and Sheriff Bonner continues to insist that everything is under control.”

Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that the sheriff’s office is violating the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

“Dangerous conditions at this detention facility threaten the lives of individuals vulnerable to COVID-19, and the clock is ticking for much-needed improvements at the facility,” said Joseph J. Bial, lead counsel for the Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP team. “Paul, Weiss is proud to work with the ACLU and others to seek appropriate relief to improve conditions and to prevent avoidable loss of human life.”

As a recent epidemiological model demonstrates, an outbreak at the jail would 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.

The complaint filed today can be found at:

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