Lawsuit Demands Immediate Release of Santa Rita Inmates at High Risk for a Fatal COVID-19 Infection While Living in Unsafe Conditions

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OAKLAND – It would be hard to imagine a better incubator for a COVID-19 outbreak than a jail where inmates are forced to eat, sleep and recreate in tight quarters. For that very reason, public health experts have urged corrections officials to make sure that incarcerated people can remain at least six feet apart from others.

But social distancing is not happening at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, CA, where a woefully inadequate response to the coronavirus has put the lives of confined individuals in peril.

Today, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed a class action lawsuit to compel Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern to release all medically vulnerable people in custody at Santa Rita or in rare circumstances transfer them to home confinement.

Three of our plaintiffs are inmates who suffer from respiratory illnesses and hypertension – chronic medical conditions that the CDC says make them especially susceptible to a fatal COVID-19 infection.

The lawsuit argues that jail officials have not taken meaningful steps to protect at-risk people who are often confined together in small cells with shared toilets and sinks. It includes stories of inmates who are continually exposed to others from all parts of the jail through work details, doctor visits, mixing in common areas and forced movement through narrow corridors. Meanwhile, infected people are only quarantined for brief periods – sometimes moved back into the general population while they are still symptomatic.

“The sheriff’s half measures cannot protect medically vulnerable people from contagion. They only underscore his deliberate indifference to their health,” said Kathleen Guneratne, a senior attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “Jail officials must allow for the release of medically vulnerable inmates, not only for their safety, but for that of their staff and the community as a whole."

The conditions outlined in the lawsuit are not only dangerous and unconstitutional, they’re inhumane.

When inmates in Santa Rita do become infected, the medical unit is ill equipped to provide adequate care. One inmate reported that he had been left on a blood-stained floor to ride out his illness.

The lawsuit was filed in Alameda County Superior Court on behalf of three incarcerated men. National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and California Attorneys for Criminal Justice (CACJ) – two organizations that advocate for the rights of people in the criminal justice system – are also plaintiffs. We partnered with Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP on the case.

Sheriff Ahern has the authority and constitutional duty to release medically vulnerable people in his custody in order to save lives,” said NACDL Vice President Martín Sabelli. “With COVID-19 continuing to rampage through jails and prisons, causing serious illness and death, we have no time to waste.”

The lawsuit also asks a county judge to order the Alameda County sheriff to immediately identify all medically vulnerable people – and provide his criteria for selecting them. We’re calling for COVID-19 testing for all at-risk inmates and proper quarantine of infected people, among other protective measures.

The proposed temporary restraining order may be viewed here.


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