Decarceration has always been an emergency, a life and death proposition, but COVID-19 makes this effort intensely urgent. The ACLU has been working with our partners to litigate for the rights of those who are incarcerated and cannot protect themselves because of the policies of the institutions in which they are jailed.
The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Florida, and Disability Rights Florida sued the Broward County Sheriff’s Office on behalf of people incarcerated in dangerous conditions in Broward County Jail that expose them to the rapid spread of COVID-19. Filed in June 2020, the lawsuit demanded that the Sheriff’s Office immediately take action to protect people in their custody from contracting the virus. A federal court approved the class action settlement of the case in May 2021; our fight continues to make sure the Sheriff’s Office complies with what they agreed to do in the Settlement Order to safeguard the health and lives of the individuals in custody, and in turn the staff and the community.
People held at the Broward jail filed the lawsuit to protect themselves and others incarcerated at the jail by making the jail follow COVID-19 prevention and containment procedures such as providing appropriate and adequate cleaning supplies, soap, and sanitizer; housing people in a manner that permits social distancing and protects those who are medically vulnerable; medically isolating and treating symptomatic and COVID-19 positive individuals; properly screening and quarantining newly admitted or transferred detained individuals; waiving fees for sick calls; and providing accurate and reliable tests for COVID-19. Detained people brought this lawsuit because the Broward County Jail and its medical care contractor, WellPath, have failed to provide basic health and safety protections. Despite limited virus testing, the jail confirmed hundreds of COVID-19 infections among detained people and hundreds among jail staff.
Even now, as the state of the pandemic improves in the United States more broadly, conditions in jails and prisons continue to endanger the people incarcerated there, particularly those who are medically vulnerable. This includes many individuals with disabilities who are particularly at risk of serious injury or death due to COVID-19. The Settlement Order unequivocally requires the jail to take the measures described above and more to protect persons detained in the jail from the risks of COVID-19, covering social distancing and personal protective equipment standard, contact tracing and cleaning measures, and more. The Order certifies a class and applies to all people who are or will be held at the Broward County Jail during the period of the agreement.
Although vaccines are available, many vaccination sites in Broward County have shut down because the public is not using them. Still, people in jails in Broward County have had very little access to vaccines despite the high risk of exposure and the alarming rise of variants in Florida. People who are incarcerated, including those in Broward County, have been some of the most impacted by the pandemic.
Jail populations are transient, as people are locked up and released, and staff come and go daily from the community to the jail buildings, increasing the risk of spreading the virus. Belatedly, in May 2021, the Sheriff undertook a vaccination initiative to offer the Johnson & Johnson (single dose) vaccine. The Sheriff has reported that, as of June 30, 2021, only 1532 people detained at the county jail had been vaccinated. At the end of June 2021, the jail housed nearly 3500 individuals, operating at 80% capacity. The Sheriff’s office has done little to offer vaccine education or answer questions and address fears about the J&J vaccine, but has agreed to distribute written information from trusted public health experts, provided by the Plaintiffs’ lawyers.
Over the last few months, several new variants of COVID-19 have become pervasive. According to expert testimony submitted in the lawsuit, Florida has consistently been among the states with the highest B.1.1.7. variant COVID-19 case count. Broward County has the highest percentage of the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19 in the entire state of Florida.