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Oakland County Jail Ordered To Identify Prisoners Who Should Be Released To Protect Them From COVID-19

A U.S. district court judge said the Michigan jail has demonstrated ‘deliberate indifference’ to the lives of ‘medically vulnerable’ prisoners who are at particular risk of the novel coronavirus.

A federal district judge has ordered the Oakland County, Michigan, jail to provide a list of “medically vulnerable” prisoners who can be either freed or released to home confinement to protect them from the risk of contracting COVID-19. Jail officials have three days to comply. After the initial list is submitted, U.S. District Judge Linda Parker will begin ordering the release of prisoners subject to input by jail officials and attorneys.

Parker’s ruling on Thursday came three days after the last brief was filed in a lawsuit on behalf of people imprisoned at the jail. “Considering the weight of the public health evidence demonstrating the medically-vulnerable population’s unique, specific, and life-threatening susceptibility to COVID-19—paired with the communal nature of jail facilities, the Court finds that home confinement or early release is the only reasonable response to this unprecedented and deadly pandemic,” Parker wrote in the opinion accompanying her order.

Krithika Santhanam, a staff attorney with Advancement Project who is part of the team defending the incarcerated people in the suit, said Parker’s decision “serves as a model for the rest of the country and provides the type of critical relief that comports with the law, justice, and basic standards of human decency during this harrowing time in our country’s history.”

The decision appears to be the first in the country to require the potential release of prisoners in a county jail to protect them from COVID-19. On Tuesday, a different federal judge ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to expedite the release of more than 800 at-risk individuals from the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in Ohio. On Wednesday, another federal district judge ordered a Maryland jail to implement measures to prevent COVID-19’s spread, but stopped short of ordering the release of medically vulnerable residents.

In addition to beginning the process for the release of medically vulnerable residents, Parker ordered the jail to take a number of significant, specific steps to protect people who remain incarcerated from the risk of contracting COVID-19. The steps include providing free soap and cleaning products, waiving medical copays, hourly cleaning of surfaces, and, “to the extent possible,” suspending the use of multi-person cells except in limited circumstances including quarantining already-ill individuals together.

Parker further cited several areas in which jail officials seemed to practice “deliberate indifference” to the constitutionally protected rights of people incarcerated in Oakland County. In addition to failing to release or improve housing arrangements available to medically vulnerable inmates, Parker cited widespread failure of guards to wear masks or gloves, housing arrangements where inmates are crowded into multi-person cells while “many” other cells are kept empty, and officials’ failure to initiate contact tracing to house people where they would be at less risk for contracting the virus.

The case was originally filed on April 17 by a team of attorneys from the Advancement Project, the American Civil Liberties Union Fund of Michigan, and the Civil Rights Corps as well as lawyers in a private practice in Michigan.

In a press release issued Thursday, the Sheriff’s Department said it has appealed Parker’s decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The department said the decision “is inconsistent with the law, and inconsistent with other cases across the country which have dealt with prisoner release requests.” 

The release states that, to date, 47 incarcerated people have tested positive for COVID-19, six are still positive, and the six who are positive are in quarantine. “Additionally, no inmate at the Oakland County Jail has required hospitalization nor died because of COVID-19,” the release says.