Inmates Say Philly Prison 'Dangerously Slow' In Virus Prep

By Lauren Berg
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Law360 (April 15, 2020, 11:32 PM EDT) -- The Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia has been "dangerously slow" to adopt precautions to prevent inmates from contracting and spreading the deadly coronavirus, according to a putative class action filed Wednesday in Pennsylvania federal court that accuses the prison of trampling inmates' constitutional rights.

With two inmates in each 100-square-foot cell, unsanitary conditions, no personal protective equipment and no testing available for the novel coronavirus that causes the deadly COVID-19, the federal prison is putting its inmates — many of whom are pretrial detainees — and the wider community at risk, according to the complaint filed by three inmates.

Timothy Brown, Myles Hannigan and Anthony Hall, represented by the Public Interest Law Center and Dilworth Paxson LLP, filed their suit for injunctive relief and petition for writs of habeas corpus seeking temporary release from the prison for themselves and other detainees at an elevated risk from COVID-19.

The detainees also want the prison to do a better job of mitigating the risk of infection to those who will remain confined, according to the complaint filed against the prison's warden, Sean Marler.

"Even as glimmers of hope are emerging in Pennsylvania and greater Philadelphia that precautionary measures have begun to slow the spread of the virus, the environment remains dangerous for everyone in the FDC, and especially so for detainees like petitioners, whose preexisting medical conditions leave them highly vulnerable to serious or deadly cases of COVID-19," the inmates said.

The inmates said jails and prisons across the country have become centers of rapid spread of COVID-19. In the Philadelphia jail system, the infection rate of inmates is 14.75 per 1,000 — a higher infection rate than any Philadelphia neighborhood, the state of New York or the administrative region of Lombardy, Italy, the inmates said. As of April 6, among the 4,134 inmates in the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, 66 had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the suit.

There are about 1,030 people currently being detained at the FDC, according to the complaint, and the majority of those being held are pretrial detainees who have not been convicted of a crime. No COVID-19 cases had been reported at the prison as of Wednesday afternoon, according to Philadelphia news website Billy Penn.

While the FDC halted social and most attorney visitation on March 13, the complaint said correctional officers come in and out every day without being adequately medically screened. On April 1, the facility was put on a two-week lockdown, according to the complaint, in which all detainees were confined to their cells, except for one hour per day to shower, send emails and use the phone.

There is sporadic use of masks and gloves, the inmates said, but it's not enough to prevent the spread of the virus. The many shared surfaces, such as telephones, computers and showers, are not being properly sanitized, the inmates said. And detainees only have limited access to personal hygiene products, like tissues, soap and alcohol-based disinfectant, according to the complaint.

The three plaintiffs said they are particularly vulnerable because they suffer from underlying conditions that can cause complications if they contract COVID-19.

Brown, 46, has serious coronary artery disease, latent tuberculosis and a lifelong history of asthma, as well as a compromised immune system from decades of drug addiction, according to the complaint. He has twice overdosed, most recently in January 2019, causing his heart to stop, complaint says.

Hannigan, 47, also has advanced heart disease and coronary artery disease, as well as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and sleep apnea, according to the complaint. He said the FDC has failed or refused to properly monitor or treat his medical needs.

Hall, 46, suffers from renal failure and hypertension, according to the complaint.

The suit claims Marler and the prison are violating the inmates' Fifth and Eighth Amendment rights to be detained in a safe situation and to have necessary and adequate medical care. The inmates want the immediate release of vulnerable detainees to home confinement and the prison to mitigate the risk of illness and death from COVID-19 to those who will remain confined.

"It can no longer be business as usual in our federal prisons," Linda Dale Hoffa of Dilworth Paxson said in a statement Wednesday. "These are extraordinary times that require immediate and creative solutions to address this unprecedented health crisis threatening the lives of those at the FDC."

The class action is just one of many pleas for release being filed by people detained in jails and prisons all around the country.

On Wednesday, inmates seeking release from the federal prison in Devens, Massachusetts, warn the facility is a "powder keg of potential infection" that is violating constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment through indifference to the risks of the novel coronavirus.

On Tuesday, attorneys for former Trump campaign chairman Paul J. Manafort Jr. asked the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to allow the 71-year-old to serve all or part of his remaining sentence in home confinement, saying he's at "high-risk" for severe illness from COVID-19.

Detainees in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities across the country are also asking to be released, from Florida and California to Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

A representative for Marler and the prison did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The detainees are represented by Mary M. McKenzie and Benjamin D. Geffen of the Public Interest Law Center, Linda Dale Hoffa and Margaret Spitzer Persico of Dilworth Paxson LLP and Jim Davy.

Counsel information for Marler was not immediately available.

The case is Timothy Brown et al. v. Sean Marler, case number 2:20-cv-01914, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

--Additional reporting by Brian Dowling, Hannah Albarazi, Nathan Hale, Sarah Martinson and Matthew Santoni. Editing by Bruce Goldman.

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