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Settlement Reached in COVID-19 Class Action Against DC Jail

by Kevin W. Bliss and Jayson Hawkins

On April 12, 2022, the federal court for the District of Columbia approved a settlement agreement to resolve a class-action lawsuit which challenged conditions of confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic at the DC Jail. Like an earlier preliminary injunction (PI) issued in the case, the agreement obligates the DC Department of Corrections (DOC) to make specific efforts to mitigate spread of the disease, but it does not grant Plaintiffs’ motion for early release.

That earlier PI, issued on June 18, 2020, ordered DOC to provide medical attention to prisoners and detainees within 24 hours of request, as well as access to legal counsel. The Court also ordered the agency to secure a contract with a COVID-19 cleaning service and ensure quarantine procedures were nonpunitive. [See: PLN, Oct. 2020, p.38.]

DOC moved to vacate the PI in July 2020, arguing circumstances had changed. But the Court denied the motion. DOC appealed, arguing the PI had expired after 90 days because it wasn’t made permanent, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997e. On July 6, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit agreed and quashed the injunction, remanding the case to the district court to determine the viability of any remaining claims. See: Banks v. Booth, 3 F.4th 445 (2021).

After that, the parties proceeded to reach their settlement agreement. Like the PI, it also ensures timely access to medical care and social distancing, improved sanitation at all jail facilities, as well as modifications to make conditions in isolation non-punitive for prisoners who test positive for the disease and must quarantine. However, Plaintiffs’ request for early release was not granted, nor was a request to appoint an outside expert to oversee DOC’s pandemic-related operations.

Plaintiffs were represented by attorneys Arthur B. Spitzer, Scott Michelman, and Michael Krevans Perloff from the DC chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, along with Jenna Marie Cobb, Jonathan William Anderson, and Steven D. Marcus of the Public Defender Service for DC. See: Banks v. Booth, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67635 (D.D.C.). 

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