FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 31, 2021
Lindsay Kee, ACLU-TN, (615) 320-7142
Brandon Cox, ACLU, firstname.lastname@example.org, (804) 502-2003
Josh Spickler, Just City, email@example.com, (901) 216-2024
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Late last night, a federal judge ruled that a consent decree reached between local and national civil rights advocates and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office to improve jail conditions to protect people from widespread infection, serious injury and death from COVID-19 must remain in place, denying the sheriff’s effort to terminate the agreement.
The agreement, approved by the court on April 9, guarantees that the jail will implement rigorous monitoring and reporting; additional jail inspections; improved airflow and ventilation measures to keep people safe from airborne transmission of COVID-19; better quality protective equipment for people being detained in the jail; continued efforts to expedite release for those who are disabled and medically vulnerable; improved social distancing; and other enhancements that will better protect people living and working in the facility.
The sheriff’s office had attempted to end the agreement, claiming that it had met the agreement’s requirements by offering vaccines, even though a medical expert who testified in the case described the jail’s vaccination rate as “shockingly low,” even in comparison to other carceral settings, and a court-appointed independent inspector described the jail’s vaccination program as “completely ineffective,” and “the equivalent of not having a vaccine program at all.” The inspector also found that social distancing was “non-existent” on multiple floors; people in the facility “uniformly” reported not receiving any educational materials about the vaccine; and that class members detained in the jail are “at an unreasonable risk of serious illness or death.”
In her decision keeping the decree in place, Judge Sheryl Lipman stated, “The estimated vaccination rate at the Jail, in the midst of the virulent Delta variant, signals a population in deep peril. The Consent Decree did not enshrine mere box-checking. It enshrined meaningful protection for Plaintiffs, a medically vulnerable group.”
“The court’s ruling should be a wake-up call for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. Instead of taking urgent and badly needed steps to protect people locked up in crowded conditions in the jail from this deadly pandemic, jail leadership has done the opposite,” said Nancy Rosenbloom, ACLU National Prison Project senior litigation advisor. “Active oversight by the court and the independent inspector is more crucial than ever now, with the resurgence of COVID-19 in the jail, the U.S., and the world.”
The decree that will remain in place was reached in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee; the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation; Just City; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; and attorneys Brice Timmons and Steve Mulroy on behalf of people incarcerated at the Shelby County Jail.
“The Shelby County Jail is still not a safe place for the people who live there,” said Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City. “By denying the sheriff’s motion to terminate this consent decree, the judge has made it crystal clear that there is still a need for vaccinations, population reduction, and other critical protections in the jail. We will continue to fight for our clients on the inside, knowing that a safer jail means a safer community.”
Most of the named plaintiffs in the case are at high risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19, including a pretrial detainee with progressive multiple sclerosis and heart disease who takes an immunosuppressant to manage his multiple sclerosis; a person held pretrial at the jail with diabetes and hypertension; and another pretrial detainee with hypertension and an irregular heartbeat, who previously had a heart attack.
“Conditions inside the Shelby County Jail remain unacceptable, and we applaud the court for recognizing that the sheriff still has a long way to go to keep people inside the jail safe,” said Stella Yarbrough, ACLU of Tennessee staff attorney. “The court’s commitment to protecting people who are detained, and its recognition that these protections are critically important to the health and safety of the wider community as well will save lives.”
University of Memphis law professor and former Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy commented, “Judge Lipman’s order demonstrates what plaintiffs have long contended – that despite the sheriff’s rosy claims, the jail’s vaccine efforts are completely inadequate, forcing people who haven’t been convicted of any crime to live, as the judge puts it, ‘in deep peril.’”
The plaintiffs have asked the court to enforce the consent decree by ordering that the sheriff improve efforts to increase the vaccination rate in the jail, including offering adequate educational materials and non-punitive incentives to increase the vaccination rate in the jail; providing sufficient socially-distanced out-of-cell time; prioritizing and expediting release plans for detainees who can be released; and implementing the recommendations of a ventilation expert working with both sides of the lawsuit.
Because of the jail leadership’s noncompliance with the consent decree and the increased risk of the COVID-19 delta variant, the plaintiffs also have asked the court to clarify that the decree will not terminate until the sheriff’s vaccine program results in 80 percent of the detained population being fully vaccinated for a three-month period or the independent inspector determines that vaccination levels and other measures keep people in the jail safe. The plaintiffs requested that the consent order remain in place until the CDC and the Tennessee Department of Health declare that the pandemic has ended. These motions are still pending.
The court’s decision can be found at: https://www.aclu-tn.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Order-Denying-Motion-to-Termination-_-Busby-v.-Bonner.pdf
The court-appointed independent inspector’s most recent report can be found at: https://www.aclu-tn.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Shelby-County-Jail-Fourth-Follow-Up-Covid-19-Inspection-Final-Report-8-17-2021.pdf