ACLU Court Filing Condemns Tulare County Sheriff’s Failure to Adequately Address COVID-19 Outbreak in County Jails

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FRESNO – Representing the more than 1,200 people in custody at the Tulare County Jails, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California (ACLU NorCal) filed a motion for final approval of the settlement agreement in Criswell v. Boudreaux, an ongoing class action lawsuit against Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux for his failure to institute safety measures and policies to protect incarcerated people from COVID-19.

The motion, filed Nov. 1, comes in the midst of another serious COVID-19 outbreak at the jails, in which at least 95 incarcerated people have been infected, one person with COVID-19 has died (although the sheriff contests that COVID-19 was a cause of death) and another person has been hospitalized. It describes an evolving outbreak in which Sheriff Boudreaux failed to react quickly and effectively to the outbreak at its onset in October 2021, in violation of the terms of the settlement agreement which he signed in September.

Declarations filed with the court describe how the sheriff delayed testing and isolating class members, delayed surveillance testing outside of the housing units where there were known COVID-19 infections, failed to consistently isolate COVID-positive class members, and continues to house COVID-positive and COVID-negative people in shared cells.

 In one declaration, Dennis Moreno describes how his friend Kevin Brown died in the jails on Oct. 8 after complaining of COVID-19 symptoms. He was left to ask other people in custody for Tylenol and prayers in the hours before he died. (While the sheriff has asserted that the coroner’s investigation ruled out COVID-19 as a cause or contributing factor in Brown’s death, Sheriff Boudreaux has yet to provide any autopsy report or documentation to support this assertion.)

While Sheriff Boudreaux has maintained that virtually all COVID-positive individuals were asymptomatic, many class members have reported widespread, and often severe, symptoms. Michael Balderas tested positive for COVID-19 and repeatedly begged for medical attention due to difficulty breathing. He reported that he “was afraid to go to sleep every night because [he] wasn’t sure if [he] would wake up.” On Oct. 18, he collapsed to the floor “gasping for air.” Medical staff took his vital signs and returned him to his cell. When a doctor came through the unit the next day, Balderas was taken to the hospital for pneumonia and hospitalized for 10 days, during which time he lost more than 30 pounds.

“The sheriff has misrepresented the breadth and severity of the outbreak, and failed to take the most essential steps to stop it,” said Emi MacLean, Senior Staff Attorney at ACLU NorCal. “There is no excuse for refusing to isolate COVID-positive people—it violates the settlement agreement and the most basic public health guidance. It’s long past time for Sheriff Boudreaux to ensure that the people in his care are as safe as possible from infection and untimely death.”

ACLU NorCal and co-counsel Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP argue that the ongoing outbreak highlights the need for the court to swiftly grant final approval of the settlement agreement, and for the sheriff to ensure compliance. The settlement agreement requires basic measures to protect against the risks of COVID-19, including vaccinations, testing, and isolation.

A hearing is set for Nov. 29.

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