Overcrowded cells, a lack of personal protective equipment and limited access to cleaning and sanitation supplies are putting people in a Georgia jail at risk of exposure to the coronavirus outbreak, a federal lawsuit says.
Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill and several of his high-ranking subordinates are ignoring the known risks of the virus, exposing people in their custody to a highly infectious disease that can be fatal, the lawsuit says. Lawyers with the Southern Center for Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia say they filed the lawsuit July 1 on behalf of four people held in the Clayton County jail.
Hill did not respond Thursday to phone messages seeking comment on the lawsuit.
The lawsuit accuses the jail administrators of failing to take reasonable steps to ensure effective social distancing and failing to provide sufficient sanitation or adequate protective equipment. They also haven’t adequately identified and responded to positive cases or provided inmates with information on how to avoid infection, it says.
The conditions violate the inmates’ constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment and rights to due process, the lawsuit says.
The jail, which is about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Atlanta, was 96% full, with 1,847 inmates as of June 4, and cells meant to house two people often housed three or four, the lawsuit says. There isn’t enough space for social distancing in the cells or common areas.
Forty-five people at the jail – 32 inmates and 13 employees – had tested positive for the coronavirus by June 11, with 16 new positive tests in the first eight days of June alone, the lawsuit says.
People experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, often remain in overcrowded cells for days, the lawsuit says. When they are moved out, the cells aren’t cleaned before new inmates are moved in.
Because they don’t have enough cleaning supplies, some inmates use bits of toilet paper and the 4 fluid ounces (12 centiliters) of liquid soap they are allotted each week for personal hygiene to wipe down their cells, the lawsuit says.
The frequent turnover in the jail population and the rotation of officers makes it easier for the virus to travel into and out of the jail, the lawsuit says.
“Due to the constant churn of people in and out of local jails, the health of a community during a pandemic is only as strong as the health of those detained in its jail,” Cody Cutting, a fellow at the Southern Center, said in a news release.
Two of the people who filed the lawsuit are serving 12-month sentences, one for a misdemeanor and the other for a probation violation. The other two are awaiting trial and can’t afford to pay their bail amounts. They range in age from 58 to 72, and all four have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to the coronavirus, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit seeks class-action status. It asks a judge to order the release or transfer of some inmates, including those who are medically vulnerable. It also seeks improved jail conditions through social distancing measures and the provision of personal protective equipment.
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