Local and National Groups File Amended Lawsuit Demanding Immediate Relief for Horrid Conditions in Shelby County Jail

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
September 15, 2020 2:15 pm

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Tennessee
Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – 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 filed a request today to amend their existing lawsuit asking for immediate relief to protect people in the Shelby County Jail — and the Memphis community as a whole — from widespread infection, serious injury and death from COVID-19.

The lawsuit follows 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;
  • Compromised quarantining upon entry to the jail and a failure to consistently quarantine and isolate exposed detainees;
  • Reliance on a “timing-out” policy to return exposed detainees to the rest of the population rather than testing;
  • Air vents and open bar cells allowing airflow between areas of the facility where COVID-positive and quarantined people are detained and areas where others who have not been exposed to the virus are detained; and
  • 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 allege 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.

“Jail officials in Shelby County have had copious time to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously, but have failed to do so,” said Andrea Woods, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “It has been over two months since an independent inspector flagged critical failures to keep medically vulnerable people safe, and a month since the court called out a number of distressing practices, including failing to embrace social distancing or systematically review vulnerable people for pretrial release. The stakes are far too high to warrant the jail’s complacent approach to the crisis.”

“Refusing to take simple actions to protect medically vulnerable people from a deadly virus is unconscionable, especially when the sheriff has been on notice about these problems for so long,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director. “Across the country, people of color are hit the hardest by COVID-19 in our jails and prisons due to overpolicing, discrimination within the criminal legal system, and disparities in access to health care. Fixing the conditions at the Shelby County Jail is not only crucial to saving the lives of people within the jail and in the wider community, it is an urgent step in the broader fight for racial justice.”

“The Shelby County Jail remains a very dangerous place, and because our community depends heavily on money bail, most people are there because they can’t afford to pay for their freedom,” said Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City. “No one should be at risk of contracting a deadly virus simply because they don’t have money. Just City will continue our fight for better jail conditions and an end to wealth-based detention in Shelby County. This complaint is a necessary next step in that fight.”

At the outset of the pandemic, the ACLU released an epidemiological model that showed that COVID-19 could claim the lives of approximately 100,000 more people than originally projected if jail populations were not dramatically and immediately reduced. States across the country, including Tennessee, were slow to act on the knowledge that prisons and jails would serve as COVID-19 hotspots and as of August 28, 231 people held at the jail and 162 jail employees had tested positive for COVID-19, and one jail employee had died. According to the latest report available, 86 percent of inmates at the Shelby County Jail were there pretrial.

Joseph J. Bial, lead counsel for the Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP team said, “As the court has said, concerns persist as to lack of testing, social distancing, and isolation and quarantine measures at the jail, as well as the persistent failure to consider detainees’ medical conditions when making bond decisions. The sheriff has not adequately fixed these problems. This complaint seeks to make him do so.”

A copy of the proposed amended complaint filed today is available here: https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/busby-v-bonner-proposed-amended-comp…

Sign up to be the first to hear about how to take action.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release