Advocates warn outbreak is imminent inside county jail
Oakland County, MI – Today several civil rights and racial justice groups filed a federal lawsuit calling for the release of medically vulnerable people inside the Oakland County Jail, arguing that county officials are risking the lives of everyone inside and the community at large because of their failure to respond to the threat of COVID-19. Naming Oakland County, its Sheriff, Michael Bouchard, and Commander of Corrective Services Curtis D. Childs, the lawsuit filed by Advancement Project National Office, American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU), Civil Rights Corps (CRC), LaRene & Kriger P.L.C. and the Law Firm of Pitt, McGhee, Palmer and Rivers in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, argues that Oakland County officials are violating the constitutional rights of people in the jail by exposing them to an unnecessary risk of infection, illness or death during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I am 42 years old.... I suffer from hypertension, cardiac disease, and obesity. I had a mild heart attack in 2015, and I still experience chest pains from time to time,” said Michael Cameron, a plaintiff in the case who is currently being held inside Oakland County Jail. “I am terrified that if I catch the coronavirus, I will not be able to fight it off. I worry about dying in the hospital with no family around me. I worry about who will protect my son.”
The lawsuit also asks the court to order Oakland County officials to immediately adopt comprehensive measures to protect the safety and health of people in jail.
On a typical day, jails provide inadequate health care and are places that cause serious harm to the people confined there. Now, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the stakes are higher--the Oakland County Jail has already recorded 23 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Those held inside the jail lack consistent access to soap, sanitizer, and are unable to practice social distancing, according to the suit. Families are outraged and local advocates are fighting for the release of this vulnerable population.
“We were horrified by the inhumane conditions including lack of adequate food, crowded living quarters, and lack of hygiene products to keep people safe inside Oakland County Jail during the pandemic,” said Earl Burton, a community organizer with Michigan Liberation, which is advocating for the families of incarcerated people inside the county jail alongside the national civil rights and racial justice groups.
The suit also outlines the following conditions inside the jail: People who begin to show symptoms of COVID-19, such as a dry cough, shortness of breath, or a fever, are not immediately tested or quarantined, if at all; staff are not consistently wearing protective personal equipment including gloves and masks; people confined in the jail also face a shortage of gloves and masks.
“People are going to die if immediate action is not taken inside Oakland County Jail. The cruelty of our criminal legal system is on heightened display in this current pandemic as people, including those with serious underlying health issues, are being confined to cages under conditions that make the risk of death or serious injury from COVID-19 a terrifying certainty,” said Krithika Santhanam, Justice Project Staff Attorney at Advancement Project National Office.
If COVID-19 continues to spread inside the Oakland County Jail, many of the people incarcerated there will require urgent care. An outbreak will cause death and devastation to countless lives, according to the suit, and would overwhelm the capacity of the jail’s health services, exacerbate the death toll and the risks to all involved--within and outside the facility. Swift action at the federal, state, and local levels will prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside prisons, jails, and detention centers, while having an enormous impact on the wellness of the rest of the country.
“Being locked up in jail should not be a death sentence, but that is what people behind bars are facing in the Oakland County Jail and jails across the state because of this pandemic. At the very least, most incarcerated people who are pre-trial, medically frail, or whose sentences end this year should be released immediately,” said Phil Mayor, a senior attorney with the ACLU of Michigan. “Meanwhile, Oakland County Jail staff must do everything in their power to protect people remaining in their custody by providing adequate soap and disinfectant, ensuring social distancing, and thereby ending their unconscionable retaliation against those attempting to protect themselves from the deadly virus.”
“The most vulnerable in our society unjustly suffer the gravest impact by a crisis like COVID-19. The measures we take to help this population is a reflection of the moral integrity of our society. Protecting the vulnerable jail and prison population not only elevates us as compassionate human beings but also diminishes the damaging impact that this crisis will have on the outside community. Blessed are those who execute justice for the oppressed,” said Cary S. McGehee, Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers P.C.
“COVID-19 presents a life-threatening risk to the people incarcerated in the Oakland County Jail. As we’ve seen repeatedly across the country, people will die in the absence of action,” said Alex Twinem, attorney for the Civil Rights Corps. “Releasing people from cages is the fastest way to stop this crisis. At a minimum, though, the Oakland County Jail must employ basic measures to protect people in the jail, by ensuring proper social distancing and access to soap and cleaning supplies.”
"A COVID-19 outbreak at Oakland County Jail would be nothing short of a nightmare. We already know there are confirmed cases, which means there is an imminent risk of serious illness and death to those held inside the jail, who are essentially defenseless against infection,” said Allison L. Kriger, of the law firm LaRene & Kriger P.L.C. “It's hard to protect yourself from something you can't see, and when the most basic protective measures -- like physical distancing and adequate hygiene and sanitation--are unavailable, it's impossible. And, this isn't just an inmate problem or a jail problem, it's a human problem and a community problem. Jail staff, vendors, contractors, and visitors exposed to the virus will carry it out into the community. This is preventable, but only if we act immediately.”
In efforts to heavily pressure local and state governments to release people immediately, Advancement Project National Office and Michigan Liberation have created advocacy tools as a call to action for #FreeAndSafe communities. Advancement Project National Office has filed similar suits in St. Louis, Miami, and expects more legal action in Detroit and East Baton Rouge.
Advancement Project National Office, founded in 1999, is a next-generation, multi-racial civil rights organization with a mission to fulfill America’s promise of a caring, inclusive and just democracy.
Michigan Liberation is a statewide network of people and organizations organizing to end the criminalization of Black families and communities of color in Michigan.
ACLU of Michigan, founded in 1959, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public interest organization dedicated to the defense and expansion of civil liberties and civil rights in Michigan.
Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers P.C. is one of the state’s largest and most accomplished plaintiff civil rights and employment law firms specializing in representing individuals whose civil rights have been violated through legal action and social engineering.
LaRene & Kriger P.L.C. is a pre-eminent criminal defense firm in Detroit with a long history of both trial and appellate work in notable and challenging cases.
Civil Rights Corps (CRC) is a nonprofit organization working to end the criminalization of poverty through high impact, innovative, anti-racist civil rights litigation and advocacy.