Fla. Jail Inmates Sue Sheriff Over Failure To Stop Virus Spread

By Carolina Bolado
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Law360 (June 5, 2020, 9:33 PM EDT) -- Inmates at Broward County Jail filed a proposed class suit Friday against the county sheriff's office demanding the release of medically vulnerable people to home confinement and improved conditions within the jail to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

In the suit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Florida, the inmates say the sheriff's office has failed to enact basic preventative measures like providing soap, allowing space for social distancing, medically isolating symptomatic and COVID-19 positive individuals and testing for the coronavirus.

"Even though parts of the state are reopening, it does not mean that the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in jails has vanished," Benjamin Stevenson, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement. "Broward County Jail has failed to adjust its facilities to meet public health guidelines during this pandemic. The people in their custody remain at high risk and are subject to living in these unconstitutional conditions."

The inmates claim that there is no COVID-19 testing or screening of detainees at intake and inadequate testing of staff, which helps spread the virus throughout the four county correctional facilities. The county has also failed to curb movement of detainees from one facility to another and has not provided adequate personal protective equipment to staff and detainees, according to the suit.

They said preventing the jail outbreak from growing worse is critical to preventing community spread.

"Jails are not hermetically sealed," the plaintiffs said in the suit. "Every day, custody, health care and civilian staff who have direct contact with prisoners enter and leave the facilities. For this reason, failing to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 endangers not only those within the institution, but the entire community."

Among the plaintiffs is 59-year-old Christopher Brown, who has heart issues and cirrhosis of the liver and is awaiting trial, and 32-year-old Cody Barnett, who is HIV-positive and is also awaiting trial. He says he was not provided with his HIV medication for a month after he was booked.

Broward County Sheriff spokeswoman Miranda Grossman said the sheriff will "vigorously defend this lawsuit." She said "extraordinary measures" have been implemented to protect both inmates and staff.

"These measures taken in conjunction with Wellpath, the jail's inmate healthcare provider, have exceeded the guidelines of the CDC and the Department of Health and have been effective," Grossman said. "Currently, there are only four inmates who are positive for COVID-19. The Broward Sheriff's Office will continue to take all measures necessary for the health and safety of inmates and staff of the Department of Detention."
Broward County has been at the epicenter of Florida's coronavirus outbreak, which has hit South Florida hardest.

Broward's neighbor to the south, Miami-Dade County, is fighting another proposed class action over the conditions in one of its jails, where inmates say they cannot protect themselves against the virus. They claim the county has violated their rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments by needlessly exposing them to COVID-19. They requested court-ordered compliance with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines as well as the release of medically vulnerable individuals.

U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams issued a restraining order requiring the county to implement social distancing as much as possible and provide inmates with soap and other personal hygiene items. But she declined to order any releases.

The plaintiffs are represented by Anjana Samant, Steven Watt and Brian Stull of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, Benjamin James Stevenson, Jacqueline Nicole Azis and Daniel Tilley of the ACLU Foundation of Florida, Eric Balaban of the ACLU National Prison Project, Curtis Filaroski and Kathryn Strobach of Disability Rights Florida Inc. and Suhana S. Han, Akash M. Toprani and James H. Congdon of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP.

Counsel for the Broward sheriff was unavailable.

The case is Barnett et al. v. Tony, case number 0:20-cv-61113, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

--Additional reporting by Nathan Hale. Editing by Haylee Pearl.

Update: This story has been updated to include comment from the sheriff's office.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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