Criswell et al v. Boudreaux (Criminal Justice and COVID-19)
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.
On July 29, 2020, 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, among other safety measures recommended by public health officials.
On Feb. 25, 2021, advocates filed new claims against the 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 people physical and psychological harm.
In December 2020, 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 surveillance testing or broad-based testing of incarcerated people or staff.
And, instead of implementing standard safety procedures such as keeping people six feet apart, the sheriff has forced people to remain in their cells for 23 to 24 hours a day, in violation of their constitutional rights to due process and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment (among others). The ACLU has received reports of a resultant mental health crisis in the jails.
Plaintiffs seek a court order requiring the sheriff to assess whether he has properly contained the December outbreak, to conduct regular testing, 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.
The ACLU and co-counsel reached a preliminary settlement agreement with the sheriff to resolve the lawsuit, and filed the preliminary agreement with the court on August 10, 2021. The proposed agreement states that the sheriff will implement protective policies that are central to the lawsuit: masking, testing, vaccination, and transparent data about the impact of COVID-19 on the jail population. It must now be approved by the court.
Supplemental Complaint Press Release: ACLU Files New Claims Against Tulare County Sheriff Regarding COVID-19 Outbreak and Lockdown Policy in Local Jails (Feb. 25, 2021)