A new lawsuit seeks the release of inmates at the Shelby County Jail who are at “high risk of severe injury or death from COVID-19.”
As of Friday afternoon, the jail reported 160 confirmed coronavirus cases among detainees, but 156 have already recovered, according to the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. Another 68 employees have tested positive for the virus, 46 of whom have recovered. Only one current hospitalization was reported among both employees and detainees.
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— ShelbyTNSheriff (@ShelbyTNSheriff) May 22, 2020
The lawsuit was filed Wednesday against the sheriff’s office in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Just City on behalf of two detainees in the jail.
According to a press release, the lawsuit asks for the “identification of medically vulnerable individuals held at the jail and the immediate release of vulnerable people, most immediately those who are detained solely on the basis of their inability to satisfy a financial condition of pretrial release, or solely on the basis of a technical violation of probation or parole unless the county demonstrates that an individual poses a flight or safety risk.”
The complaint argues that the jail has “failed to uphold constitutional and statutory minimum requirements, putting people behind bars at unacceptable risk of serious complications and death from COVID-19.”
“It is especially cruel that most of the people at great risk of infection in the jail would not be there if they had financial resources,” Josh Spickler, executive director at Just City, said in a statement. “Now is the time for Shelby County to end money bail, significantly reduce its jail population, and focus on protecting the entire community from this deadly virus.”
The lawsuit alleges that the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office is violating the Fourteenth Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act.
A March report from the Tennessee Department of Correction notes that 86 percent of detainees at the jail were there on pretrial holds.
“As public health experts have consistently warned, jails are dangerous incubators for this disease – threatening the health of those who live and work behind bars as well as their surrounding communities,” said Thomas Castelli, ACLU of Tennessee legal director. “Incarceration should not be a death sentence.”
An outbreak at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Facility remains the third largest coronavirus cluster in the nation.
Shelby County has had the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in Tennessee with 4,127 cumulative cases since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Department of Health. Davidson County has had the most cases with 4,396 cumulative positive results.
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Anthony Gockowski is managing editor of The Minnesota Sun and The Ohio Star. Follow Anthony on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Shelby County Sheriff Jail Transport Van” by Thomas R Machnitzki. CC BY 3.0.