A lawsuit filed Wednesday against the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office seeks emergency action to “protect medically vulnerable people” – including people with disabilities – detained at the jail and who are at high risk of severe injury or death from COVID-19.
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 t on behalf of people incarcerated at the jail.
The lawsuit asks for identification of medically vulnerable individuals held at the jail and the immediate release of vulnerable people. Most immediately, it seeks release of those 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 Shel- by County Jail is severe. Failure to act will yield more infections, hospitalizations and deaths in both the jail and the larger Memphis community.”
Reached by phone, Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. referred The New Tri-State Defender to the public information officer, Capt. Anthony Buckner, who said, “I am sorry. The Shelby County Sheriff’s Department does not comment in relation to ongoing litigation.”
Earlier moves by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office have included putting public visitation on hold at the Jail, Jail East and Juvenile Detention to “further protect detainees” and restricting attorney visitation to video at 201 Poplar and Juvenile Court and non-contact at Jail East.
Data cited in a release about the lawsuit asserted that as of April 30, 192 people at the jail had tested positive for COVID-19, one jail employee had died and that the greatest number of deaths in Tennessee from the virus have occurred in Shelby County.
The plaintiffs also assert that – 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 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,” said 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.”
“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 said.
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 tick- ing for much-needed improvements at the facility,” said Joseph J. Bial, lead counsel for the Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP team.
The lawsuit, Busby v. Bonner, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.