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DC Federal Court Enters Partial Preliminary Injunction Against District Jails For COVID-19 Deficiencies

However, the court concluded, “the Court finds that some of the relief requested by Plaintiffs, such as the immediate release of inmates and the appointment of a downsizing expert, is inappropriate at this time on the current factual record.”

The court had initially ordered the jail “to provide a list of the names of the approximately 94 prisoners who had been sentenced to misdemeanors and who could be released; the numbers of people who had been tested for COVID-19 and a break-down of the identities of those individuals ... and the results of those tests; the date on which Defendants began testing people coming into the jails; the number and a breakdown of the results of COVID-19 tests which had been done on those who were incarcerated prior to the date on which Defendants began testing all incoming inmates; (and) all relevant written procedures and practices concerning COVID-19.”

The judge then considered the arguments of the plaintiffs, especially those concerning pre-trial detainees, noting that subjecting them to hazardous conditions did not require them to meet the higher standard of “deliberate indifference” but rather just establish a violation of due process.

“The rights of pre-trial detainees are different than the rights of post-conviction detainees,” the court said. “Because pre-trial detainees are presumed innocent, they are “entitled to more considerate treatment and conditions of confinement than criminals whose conditions of confinement are designed to punish.” Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 322 (1982). “While a convicted prisoner is entitled to protection only against ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment [under the Eighth Amendment], a pretrial detainee, not yet found guilty of any crime, may not be subjected to punishment of any description.” Hardy v. District of Columbia, 601 F. Supp. 2d 182, 188 (D.D.C. 2009), quoting Hill v. Nicodemus, 979 F.2d 987, 991 (4th Cir. 1992). Her granting of the temporary restraining order set the stage for the more thorough supervised investigation of the defendant’s health-care practices related to COVID-19.

After reviewing the findings of a court-appointed team of experts agreed to by both parties, and also the written complaints of many prisoners at the district’s correctional facilities, the court found that even prisoners suffering from signs of the highly contagious virus often waited up to one week before being seen by a doctor or other medical professional and that sick-call requests were not closely monitored.

In granting the preliminary injunction, the court said it “recognizes that Defendants’ response to this sudden and unprecedented pandemic is ongoing. And, the Court recognizes that additional evidence will likely be provided as litigation proceeds. But, based on the current record, the Court credits Plaintiffs’ argument that they experience a significantly higher rate of infection and risk of harm than the population at large. Plaintiffs’ argument is supported by statistical evidence, Plaintiffs’ expert evidence, the declarations of DOC inmates and staff, and the amici reports. Accordingly, based on the limited record before the Court, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have established a likelihood that they will be able to show that they have been exposed to an unreasonable risk of damage to their health.”

Although the judge agreed that there was serious risk of infection for jail prisoners, the court declined to take decisive action, such as ordering a reduction in prisoners, that would effectively reduce the risk of infection. The court noted, however, that jail officials had voluntarily reduced the jail population by approximately one-quarter since the start of the proceedings.

The granting of the preliminary injunction does not conclude the litigation, which continues under court supervision, and further investigation will continue while the parties decide to either go to trial or reach a final settlement. See: Banks v. Booth, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107762. 


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Related legal case

Banks v. Booth