Civil Rights Organizations Sue Wayne County Jail for Immediate Release of Vulnerable People Ahead of Deadly COVID-19 Spread
Advocates warn outbreak is imminent inside county jail
Wayne County, MI—Today, several civil rights and racial justice groups filed a federal lawsuit calling for the release of people inside Wayne County Jail, arguing that county officials are risking the lives of everyone inside and the community at large because of their failure to respond to the threat of COVID-19. Naming Wayne County, Sheriff Benny Napoleon, Undersheriff Daniel Pfannes, Chief of Jails and Court Operations Robert Dunlap, and Deputy Chief of Jail Operations James E. Davis, the lawsuit filed by Advancement Project National Office, Detroit Justice Center, Civil Rights Corps (CRC), LaRene & Kriger P.L.C. and Venable LLP in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan argues that Wayne County officials are violating the constitutional rights of people in the jail by exposing them to an unnecessary risk of infection, illness or death during the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to immediate release, the lawsuit also asks the court to order Wayne County officials to immediately adopt comprehensive measures to protect the safety and health of people in jail—particularly the population of medically vulnerable people who are more at risk of contracting the virus. Social distancing as recommended by public health officials as the single most effective weapon against the risk of infection is impossible in Wayne County Jail because more than 800 community members are currently held at the facility.
“This petition is about saving lives–the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in our community during this pandemic. The citizens of Wayne County deserve, and are entitled to, humane treatment, including release from jail facilities, especially during these extraordinary times,” said Ashley Carter, Senior Staff Attorney at Advancement Project National Office. “For decades, Wayne County Jail has violated the constitutional rights of the individuals who are caged there. Without meaningful access to healthcare, personal protection equipment or non-punitive mechanisms for social distancing, officials are risking the lives of everyone held inside the jail.”
On a typical day, jails provide inadequate health care and are places that cause serious harm to the people confined there. Now, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the stakes are heightened—Wayne County Jail has already seen two contracted jail physicians and two deputies die as a result of COVID-19. Another 177 employees and 13 people being held at the jail have contracted the disease, according to the lawsuit. Despite that, those held inside the jail lack consistent access to soap, sanitizer, and cleaning agents to fight against infection. Families are outraged and local advocates are fighting for the release of this vulnerable population.
Seventy percent of community members inside Wayne County Jail are Black, while only comprising 37 percent of the population county wide. The criminal legal system disproportionately impacts Black people, and therefore, decarceration must be a central issue in the fight to save Black lives during this pandemic.
“We support all measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection to inmates, staff and contract employees at Michigan county jails including Wayne County. That is why people who pose no threat to public safety need to be released immediately,” said Nicholas Buckingham, Campaign Director at Michigan Liberation.
The suit also outlines the following conditions inside the jail: People who begin to show symptoms of COVID-19, such as a dry cough, shortness of breath, or a fever, are not immediately tested or quarantined, if at all; staff are not consistently wearing protective personal equipment such as gloves and masks; a shortage of gloves and masks for people confined in jail; and retaliation from jail staff against those seeking medical intervention to protect against infection.
“We are proud to assist in securing preventative measures and protections from COVID-19 for the Wayne County Jail community and Detroit area generally,” said Marty Saad, a partner at Venable, LLP.
“For over a month, the number of Wayne County Jail detainees and staff infected with COVID-19 has rapidly increased. Individuals have become seriously ill and others have died. Still, jail officials have failed to implement some of the most basic protective measures to make the jail safe,” said Allison Kriger of LaRene & Kriger, PLC. “They have failed to adequately respond to requests for medical treatment, if at all. Folks in the Jail are scared of dying, and understandably so. Jail officials have shown they are dangerously unprepared and completely ill-equipped to manage the potentially-fatal virus within the facilities.”
“Judges have the power to protect public safety in the COVID-19 pandemic by releasing as many people as possible. We know that jails are incapable of providing adequate healthcare in general, let alone during an outbreak like we’re seeing today,” said Thomas B. Harvey, Justice Project Director at Advancement Project National Office. “People in the jail, those who work there, and the general public are at greater risk if we leave people inside than if we let them return home.”
As COVID-19 continues to spread inside the Wayne County Jail, many of the people incarcerated there will require urgent care. An expanded outbreak will cause additional death and devastation to countless lives, according to the suit, and would overwhelm the capacity of the jail’s health services, exacerbate the death toll and the risks to all involved—within and outside the facility. Hospitals in the Detroit area and southeastern Michigan have already reached a tipping point in combating the disease as facilities face staffing, supply, and equipment shortages.
Today’s lawsuit is the second petition in the last month filed by Advancement Project National Office and its partners targeting Detroit area jails, including Oakland County Jail, amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In efforts to heavily pressure local and state governments to release people immediately, Advancement Project National Office and Michigan Liberation have created advocacy tools as a call to action for #FreeAndSafe communities. Advancement Project National Office has filed similar suits in St. Louis, Miami, and Oakland County, Michigan. Community members can also urge local policy makers to release community members in jail with an online call to action made possible through a partnership with Ben & Jerry’s.
Advancement Project National Office, founded in 1999, is a next generation, multi-racial civil rights organization with a mission to fulfill America’s promise of a caring, inclusive and just democracy.
Michigan Liberation is a statewide network of people and organizations organizing to end the criminalization of Black families and communities of color in Michigan.
Detroit Justice Center is a non-profit law firm working alongside communities to create economic opportunities, transform the justice system, and promote equitable and just cities.
LaRene & Kriger P.L.C. is a pre-eminent criminal defense firm in Detroit with a long history of both trial and appellate work in notable and challenging cases.
Civil Rights Corps (CRC) is a nonprofit organization working to end the criminalization of poverty through high impact, innovative, anti-racist civil rights litigation and advocacy.
Venable LLP is an American Lawyer Global 100 law firm headquartered in Washington, DC that strategically advances its clients’ objectives in the U.S. and around the globe through its more than 850 professionals across the country.