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Eleventh Circuit Says COVID-19-Wracked Miami Jail Can’t Be Forced to Give Prisoners Soap, Masks

On May 5, 2020, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals stayed a Florida district court’s preliminary injunction that required officials at Miami’s Metro West Detention Center (Metro West) to employ numerous safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and imposed extensive reporting requirements.

Metro West is one of three jails run by the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department (MDCR). It is also the largest jail in Florida.

In early March 2020, MDCR took precautions against COVID-19. It canceled visits, screened arrestees, detainees and staff, and advised staff on protective equipment use and sanitation practices. Social distancing efforts included staggering dorm bunks by requiring detainees to sleep head-to-toe and instructing staff to encourage detainees to practice social distancing.

Seven detainees at Metro West filed a class-action lawsuit on April 5, 2020. They challenged their confinement conditions and sought habeas corpus relief for the named plaintiffs and a “medically vulnerable” subclass of detainees. The suit alleged Metro West did not have enough soap or towels to wash their hands properly, waited days for medical attention, were “denied basic hygiene supplies” like laundry detergent and cleaning materials, and were forced to sleep only 2 feet apart.

The district court on April 29, 2020, granted a preliminary injunction. That order required, in part, that Metro West provide detainees with masks, an individual supply of soap, enforce 6 feet of spacing amongst detainees, test all detainees for COVID-19, waive medical co-pays and medical grievance charges, and provide disinfecting supplies.

MDRC appealed and moved the Eleventh Circuit to stay the injunction during the pendency of the appeal. In granting the stay, the court found the district court incorrectly “treated the increase in COVID-19 infections as proof that the defendants deliberately disregarded an intolerable risk. Despite finding that social distancing was “impossible” and could not be achieved absent a population reduction, the district court erroneously found Metro West’s inability to “achieve meaningful social distancing” evinced a reckless state of mind.

The Eleventh Circuit noted an expert’s report concluded that Metro West “should be commended for their commitment to protect staff and inmates in this facility during this COVID-19 pandemic.” Considering the facts, the court found the defendants’ actions likely do not amount to deliberate indifference. Thus, it concluded it was unlikely the class could prevail on the merits.

It further found “the injunction transfers the power to administer the Metro West facility in the midst of a pandemic from public officials to the district court.” As such, the defendants showed irreparable injury if a stay was not issued.

The Eleventh Circuit noted it appeared the district court failed to require the class to establish municipal liability or address the exhaustion requirements of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The court granted a motion to stay the injunction and set a briefing schedule.

As of May 5, 2020, there were 163 detainees who had tested positive for COVID-19, and about 340 positives in MDRC’s three jails. One detainee, Charles Hobbs, had died. See: Swain v. Junior, 958 F.3d 1081 (11th Cir. 2020). 


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Related legal case

Swain v. Junior