Enforcement of a 2021 Consent Decree and access to vaccines will help people who are incarcerated protect their health during the COVID-19 pandemic

Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — The federal court for the Southern District of Florida issued an order today enforcing the class-action Consent Decree requiring the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO) to improve COVID-19 conditions for more than 3,600 people detained in the Broward County Jail. A settlement agreement with BSO was reached in 2020 and ordered by the court in May 2021;  in September 2021, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union, Disability Rights Florida, and Sullivan & Cromwell LLP filed a motion to enforce and modify after BSO failed to uphold the agreement in important ways that put the health and lives of detained people at risk.

The consent decree requires BSO to implement measures to protect all people detained in the Broward County Jail from COVID-19. These measures include identifying, screening, and housing the medically vulnerable in a way that accommodates CDC-recommended social distancing, testing people who are detained and jail staff for COVID-19, quarantining those who either test positive for COVID-19 or come into contact with a positive case, and supplying  people with personal protective equipment.

Despite BSO’s agreement, an enormous amount of evidence—including a medical expert’s report and testimony, sworn statements and testimony from people currently held at the Jail and BSO's own admissions—showed at a hearing that BSO failed to implement testing, symptom screening, education on COVID prevention, and adequate PPE to people who are currently incarcerated and staff. In September 2021, the class of people in the Jail filed a motion to enforce the agreement.

“We are entering the third year of the pandemic and are currently dealing with a new and very contagious variant. Broward County Jail has had more than enough time to implement life-saving measures,” said Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney at the ACLU of Florida. “The longer the Broward Sheriff’s Office fails to uphold their agreement, the more they needlessly risk the lives of the human beings under their care.”

“Today the federal court recognized the continuing danger of COVID-19 and especially the Omicron variant to people incarcerated at this enormous Jail, and ordered the Sheriff’s office to do more,” said Nancy Rosenbloom of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “We expect BSO to comply with the order immediately, and hope that they will listen to the court’s emphasis on the importance of increasing the vaccination rate to help people keep themselves safe in this crowded and unhealthy environment.”   

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the incarcerated population’s risk of rapid infection, serious injury, and even death was alarmingly clear. With the emergence of the highly infectious Omicron variant, positive cases continue to threaten facilities all over the country, including at the Jail. On December 15, 2021, the Jail reported zero positive cases. But less than seven weeks later, on January 30, 2022, the Jail reported 259 detainees testing positive (likely an undercount because of insufficient testing). Both detained people and staff are falling very ill, and some have died from the virus.

“The Omicron variant of COVID-19 poses a massive danger to individuals incarcerated at the Jail, particularly to those vulnerable individuals with disabilities who are at a higher risk of experiencing the worst symptoms of the virus,” said Curtis Filaroski, senior staff attorney at Disability Rights Florida. “The measures ordered by the Court today are potentially life-saving for these vulnerable individuals, and are sorely needed to help reduce the spread of this highly contagious variant inside the Jail.”

A copy of the ruling can be viewed here: https://www.aclufl.org/en/barnett-v-tony-173-order-motion-enforce-and-modify