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Federal Court Slams Michigan Jail for Bungling COVID-19 Pandemic, Demands Names of Vulnerable Prisoners for Release

On April 17, 2020, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the Oakland County Jail due to its mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Plaintiffs filed a class action complaint against the Oakland County Jail seeking immediate release of all current and future Oakland County Jail detainees and three distinct subclasses:

• All pre-trial defendants;

• All post-conviction detainees; and

• All medically vulnerable defendants and detainees (i.e., those 50 or older or who otherwise have an underlying medical condition which would place them at particular risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19.)

Plaintiffs also sought an emergency motion requiring Oakland County Jail to undertake specific measures to improve hygiene and safety at the jail.

Judge Linda V. Parker issued the TRO. As PLN was going to press, attorneys for the plaintiffs were pushing for the release of medically vulnerable prisoners and an order guaranteeing that strict safety measures were put in place for all who remained at the jail.

On May 20, Judge Parker ordered the jail to provide a list of medically vulnerable inmates and their criminal histories soshe could determine who should be immediately released.

In analyzing the TRO request, the court found that plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their claim, alleging “that jail conditions violate their Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.”

“Plaintiffs’ allegations reflect that Oakland County has not imposed even the most basic safety measures recommended by health experts…to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in detention facilities,” said Judge Parker. “It cannot be disputed that COVID-19 poses a serious health risk to plaintiffs and the putative class.”

As part of the TRO, the court ordered the Oakland County Jail to comply with 16 specific safety practices. That included the provision of hand soap and paper towels “sufficient to allow regular hand washing and drying each day”; disinfectant hand wipes or hand sanitizer; and access to showers and clean laundry.

The court also ordered the jail to provide staff with personal protective equipment, to include masks. Jail officials were also ordered to wash their hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer both before and after coming into contact with “any person or any surface in cells or common areas.”

The order also put in place a new scheme for addressing COVID-19 outbreaks. For example, inmates are to receive “adequate medical care” while being “properly quarantined in a non-punitive setting.” Furthermore, the jail was ordered to respond to all COVID-19 related emergencies “within an hour.” Judge Parker ordered jail officials to cease and desist “all use of punitive transfers or threats of transfers to areas of the jail that have higher infection rates.”

On April 20, defendants filed a motion for reconsideration with the court. This motion specifically disputed plaintiffs’ representations about the conditions at the jail and argued that plaintiffs lacked credibility, citing their convictions.

Defendants stated that they had implemented the measures outlined in the TRO before commencement of the action and that providing hand sanitizer would pose a security threat.

The court reasoned that Rule 65 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure allowed the court to grant “a TRO ex parte, without briefing or evidentiary submissions by defendant.” According to the opinion, “Defendants were deliberately indifferent to a serious risk of harm to Plaintiffs and putative class members.”

In their motion for reconsideration, defendants challenged the court’s order to prepare a list of Medically-Vulnerable Subclass inmates that should be released, arguing that if the court lacked the authority to release such inmates the jail should not be required to prepare such a list.

On this matter, the court held for the defendants, stating that the court “will require Defendants to provide the list to the Court and/or Plaintiffs’ counsel, but only once the Court determines that it has the power to release inmates in this litigation.”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs were: Alexandria Twinem, Krithika Santhanam, Civil Rights Corps, Washington, DC, Allison L. Kriger, La Rene & Kriger, P.L.C., Daniel S. Korobkin, Philip Edwin Mayor, American Civil Liberties Union Fund of Michigan, Detroit, MI, Kevin M. Carlson, Cary S. McGehee, Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers PC, Royal Oak, MI.

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