FRESNO – In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tulare County Sheriff Michael Boudreaux launched a public campaign to encourage people to be “good neighbors” and wear masks to help stop the spread of the deadly virus.
Yet while the sheriff extols the virtues of mask-wearing for the general public, he has not only refused to provide face coverings to those incarcerated in his jails, he has prohibited their use – demonstrating a gross indifference to prisoners’ health and safety.
Today, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP filed a class action lawsuit to compel Tulare County to take immediate precautions to prevent a severe spread of COVID-19 that would expose approximately 1,900 incarcerated people to serious illness or death.
The lawsuit calls for the sheriff to release as many medically vulnerable people as possible to home confinement. It further asks the court to appoint an independent monitor to make recommendations for releases so that remaining prisoners can remain at least six feet apart from others. We further seek to compel Tulare County’s five jails to give incarcerated people masks, hand soap and sanitizer, to require guards and staff to wear masks and gloves, provide COVID testing, and mandate a 14-day quarantine for new arrivals, among other safety measures.
According to the sheriff, 22 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in Tulare County jails.
“The Tulare County sheriff has not only failed to establish and enforce proper policies and protocols to prevent the virus’ spread, he has actively taken steps to prevent incarcerated people from taking simple precautions like donning cloth face coverings,” said Kathleen Guneratne, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “What few actions Tulare County has taken in response to COVID-19 have been woefully inadequate, creating conditions that virtually ensure that COVID-19 will spread like wildfire in Tulare County facilities – if it hasn’t already.”
Our lawsuit alleges that while incarcerated people are provided masks by jail officials when they go to court, they are forced to give them back upon their return to jail. When one of our plaintiffs made his own mask, jail officials confiscated it.
Incarcerated people who developed flu-like symptoms and requested COVID-19 tests were told Tulare County jails don’t conduct them.
These conditions are not only dangerous and unconstitutional, they’re inhumane.
“The Tulare County sheriff’s ongoing failure to take reasonable precautions to prevent the spread and severity of a COVID-19 outbreak gravely jeopardizes the safety of our plaintiffs and all of the approximately 1,900 individuals confined in Tulare County jails,” said Amy Gilbert, a staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “The sheriff has failed to implement many basic procedures that other facilities enacted long ago.”
Our lawsuit also alleges that Tulare County jail officials have interfered with incarcerated people’s constitutional right to legal counsel, preventing them from meeting with attorneys and retaliating against those who complained about jail conditions. We’re calling on the court to require the Tulare County sheriff to provide access to unmonitored, confidential legal calls and video visits for all incarcerated people.