Wayne County Jail inmates sue over conditions during COVID-19 outbreak

May 5, 2020 at 10:25 am
click to enlarge Wayne County Jail inmates sue over conditions during COVID-19 outbreak

Several attorneys and civil rights groups have filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Sheriff Benny Napoleon and others on behalf of seven inmates, seeking to remove more detainees from the Wayne County Jail over the coronavirus outbreak.

The lawsuit says the roughly 850 inmates are at a high risk of getting infected with COVID-19 because they’re confined to a small space without adequate soap, running water, or testing. The inmates share showers, meal tables, and telephones that are infrequently cleaned, the suit states.

The failure to adequately protect inmates from the coronavirus is unconstitutional, the lawsuit states.

“Hundreds of individuals caged inside the Wayne County Jail facilities — overwhelmingly Black, poor, and medically vulnerable — are prohibited from meaningfully protecting themselves against this global pandemic,” the lawsuit states. “As COVID-19 continues to gain a powerful foothold in the Wayne County Jail, incarcerated people are at significant risk of becoming infected and ultimately dying.”

Some of the showers lack hot water, and one was flooded for a week, according to the suit. Many of the sinks don't work properly.

“In the female wards, detainees find maggots, fruit flies, or other bugs in the sinks, and the sink and toilet water is interchangeable, making it impossible for detainees in those wards to clean their hands,” the suit states.

The inmates also disproportionately suffer from chronic health conditions that can be exacerbated by COVID-19. One of the plaintiffs, Charles Russell, has advanced-stage prostate cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and an umbilical hernia. He has been denied regular radiation treatment, according to the suit.

As of late April, 13 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, and nearly 200 employees have confirmed infections. According to the suit, many more inmates are likely infected because only 10% have been tested, despite the high risk of transmitting the virus. Detainees are only tested if they are “seriously and visibly ill,” the suit states, even though up to a quarter of the people infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Throughout the last few weeks, many detainees have experienced and continue to experience varying degrees of symptoms and illness,” according to the suit.

About 62% of the inmates have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting sentencing. They’re being held in jail because they can’t afford bail.

The lawsuit also points out that 70% of the inmates are African American in a county where only 40% of the population is Black.

Attorneys are urging the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Michigan to take quick action before the outbreak gets worse.

“The Jail is blatantly disregarding the known, obvious risks of illness and death and needlessly exposing people to a serious risk of contracting a highly-fatal infectious disease,” the suit states. "If immediate action is not taken to dramatically reduce the population of the Jail, all people who remain incarcerated will be at grave and unacceptable risk of contracting COVID-19 — a serious and potentially life-threatening illness."

The lawsuit was filed by the Advancement Project, Civil Rights Corps, Detroit Justice Center, and several attorneys for Venable LLP and LaRene & Kriger PLC.

A similar class-action lawsuit was filed against Oakland County last month, contending that the jail is not adequately protecting inmates from the coronavirus.

Last week, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the Michigan Department of Corrections. Nearly half of the inmates tested in state-run prisons have tested positive for the coronavirus. The number of positive cases has more than quadrupled since April 12, from 335 to 1,412. During the same period, coronavirus deaths have increased from eight to 41.

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