FRESNO – The ACLU Foundation of Northern California and co-counsel Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP have filed new claims against the Tulare County Sheriff regarding his mismanagement of a COVID-19 outbreak in the county jail system and his implementation of a cruel cell confinement policy that has caused physical and psychological harm to incarcerated people. These claims were brought as a supplement to a class action lawsuit filed last summer to compel the Sheriff to prevent the spread of the disease in the jails.
The original complaint anticipated that, in the absence of adequate social distancing and testing measures, a large-scale COVID-19 outbreak would occur in the Tulare County Jails. In December 2020, this came to pass: 80% of people living in a single housing unit tested positive for COVID-19. But there is no way to know the true extent of the outbreak, or whether it has continued, because the Sheriff has refused to conduct regular surveillance testing or broad-based testing of incarcerated people. The Sheriff has said that the “most probable source of the outbreak” was a non-incarcerated kitchen worker. Yet he continues to conduct only very limited staff testing.
Moreover, under the original complaint, the Court ordered the Sheriff to create a social distancing policy with standard procedures such as keeping people six feet apart. Instead, the Sheriff exchanged one unconstitutional practice—not requiring social distancing—for another: a solitary-like lockdown that forces people to remain in their cells for 23 to 24 hours per day, in violation of their constitutional rights to due process and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment (among others). ACLU representatives have received reports of a resultant mental health crisis in the jails, with one suicide and at least three suicide attempts since the lockdown took effect in September 2020. The ACLU has also received reports that staff have been involuntarily medicating people who are at risk of suicide due to the desperate conditions.
“Throughout this crisis, our clients have been extremely diligent in raising their concerns to jail officials and advocating for their rights,” said Annie Decker, attorney for the plaintiffs at the ACLU. “Despite their warnings, and even in the face of a lawsuit, the Sheriff continues to show deliberate indifference to the people he is charged with protecting. He must act immediately to implement the measures necessary to keep people safe, without willfully infringing on their constitutional rights.”
“As a diabetic, I was very afraid of getting COVID-19 in the Tulare jails,” said named plaintiff Charles Criswell. “But locking people in their cells for 23 to 24 hours a day is not a solution. It’s mentally distressing. When I was inside, I saw people beg to be let out of their cells. Many of these people already have mental illness. To compound that with a lockdown is cruel. In fact, I challenge anyone to experience that and not think it’s cruel. People in the jails need meaningful procedures that keep them safe from COVID-19, and that protect their constitutional rights. Neither of those things are happening.”
Plaintiffs seek a court order requiring the Sheriff to assess whether he has properly contained the December outbreak, to regularly test staff and vendors, to vaccinate all incarcerated people as soon as possible, and to implement a social distancing policy that both prevents the spread of COVID-19 and does not violate the Constitution. If such a policy is not possible at current population levels, the Sheriff holds legal authority to depopulate the jails so that a constitutional social distancing policy is possible.
See the motion here.
See the supplemental complaint here.
See the original complaint here.
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