ACLU Sues D.C. Department of Corrections Over Coronavirus Outbreak in Jail

The American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C. (ACLU-DC) has filed suit against the district's Department of Corrections (DOC) over alleged "flagrant disregard" for the safety of prisoners amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Five inmates at D.C. Jail have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Sunday. Experts fear that the close quarters of prisons carry considerable risks for the uncontrolled spread of disease. ACLU-DC said Monday that poor conditions inside the D.C. Jail puts at least 1,600 inmates in danger.

"Many of the people currently held at D.C. Jail suffer from chronic, pre-existing medical conditions that elevate their risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, according to Centers for Disease Control criteria. These conditions include asthma, diabetes, and diseases that compromise the immune system," said Steven Marcus, an attorney with the Special Litigation Division of D.C.'s Public Defender Service, in a press release.

"With five COVID-19 cases confirmed to date among the incarcerated population, and a lack of adequate safety precautions, the disease is going to spread like wildfire absent immediate action," added Marcus.

The lawsuit accuses the DOC of failing to test inmates who showed symptoms of the virus and delaying treatment, along with failing to prevent further infections by not adequately disinfecting the facility and contributing to poor hygiene conditions by not providing prisoners with necessities like soap.

In addition, it alleges that the jail did not adequately quarantine 65 inmates who had come into contact with an infected U.S. Marshal, failed to screen new inmates, lawyers or visitors for the virus and continued to hold group therapy sessions despite social distancing guidelines.

Jail Bars and Hands
Experts say that crowded conditions typical in jails make controlling the spread of highly contagious illnesses like COVID-19 very difficult. Getty

ACLU-DC says that the conditions violate the constitutional rights of inmates held at the facility. In particular, the organization says that jail is in breach of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishment," along with the Fifth Amendment disallowing any form of punishment for people held before trial.

Prisoners and their advocates are not the only groups to have expressed concerns over conditions at the jail. The labor union representing correctional officers at the jail also recently gave the DOC leadership a unanimous vote of "no confidence" on their ability to control the spread of the virus.

"Incarceration should not be a death sentence," ACLU-DC's Legal Co-Director Scott Michelman said. "The District's utter indifference to the health and safety to the hundreds of individuals it holds in custody puts all their lives, along with the employees who work at the Jail and the community at large, in jeopardy."

In addition to immediately releasing almost 100 prisoners convicted of misdemeanors, the suit demands that the DOC appoint an independent expert to make decisions about further releases, along with implementing measures that could help contain the virus in the jail, such improving testing, disinfecting surfaces and offering inmates free soap.

Newsweek reached out to the D.C. DOC for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.