The settlement is a win for people dangerously exposed to contracting COVID-19 who brought the class action lawsuit
FORT LAUDERDALE, FL – A federal court approved the parties’ settlement of the class action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU of Florida, and Disability Rights Florida on behalf of individuals held in dangerous conditions in Broward County Jail that exposed them to the rapid spread of COVID-19. Filed in June 2020, the lawsuit demanded that the Sheriff’s Office immediately protect people in their custody from contracting the virus.
The lawsuit was filed to protect the health and safety of individuals who remained incarcerated by following basic preventative and containment procedures such as providing appropriate and adequate cleaning supplies, soap, and sanitizer; housing them in a manner that permits social distancing and protects the 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 medical 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.
The settlement, which was approved by court order, requires the jail to take these and additional measures to protect persons detained in the jail from the risks of COVID-19. “This settlement unequivocally requires the Sheriff to protect individuals in his custody,” said Jacqueline Azis, staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida. “From social distancing and personal protective equipment standards to contact tracing and cleaning measures, we are hopeful this agreement will safeguard the health and lives of the individuals in custody at the jails, the staff, and in turn, the community.”
Even though there are available vaccines, many vaccination sites in Broward have been shutting down because the public is not using them. Still, people in jails in Broward County have almost no access to vaccines despite the high risk of exposure and the alarming rise of variants in Florida. This week, the Sheriff filed two vaccination reports with the Court. According to the filings, the Sheriff is engaging in a vaccination initiative until May 21 and will offer to vaccinate individuals with the Johnson & Johnson (single dose) vaccine. The Sheriff estimates that about 650 people have been vaccinated since February 2021, some of whom have been released and others who remain in the Sheriff’s custody. Currently, the jail is housing 3,500 individuals. Over the next week, the Sheriff estimates that “20% of the total inmate jail population not already vaccinated is anticipated to accept the vaccine.” Nothing in the Sheriff’s notices indicate that the Sheriff will educate individuals about the vaccine or have staff or outside medical professionals available to answer questions about the vaccine.
"People who are incarcerated, including those in Broward County, should have already had access to COVID-19 vaccines. They, along with people who are incarcerated in prisons and immigration detention, have been some of the most impacted by the pandemic,” said Anjana Samant, senior staff attorney at the ACLU's Women's Rights Project. “Broward County Jail has had a long history of allowing unconstitutional conditions in their jail. The time to reverse those standards is now. A jail sentence should never be a death sentence, but it risks becoming one for the thousands of people incarcerated in Broward County.”
Over the last few months, several new variants of COVID-19 have become pervasive. It has made protecting vulnerable individuals, including those in congregate housing without access to vaccination, more difficult. 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.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and despite limited testing, 389 individuals in the Broward County Jail, including many individuals with disabilities, have tested positive for COVID-19, and 385 corrections and health staff also tested positive,” said Curtis Filaroski, senior staff attorney at Disability Rights Florida. “The reality is that the Broward County Jail consistently failed to uphold its duty of care for the hundreds of lives in their custody, especially those individuals with disabilities who are often particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. The conditions set by this settlement are long overdue and specifically ensures those who are medically vulnerable get the protections they need.”
Terms of the settlement can be found here: https://www.aclufl.org/en/barnett-v-tony-et-al-settlement-order