A new lawsuit is asking a federal judge to release medically at-risk detainees awaiting trial at the Shelby County jail—commonly referred to as 201 Poplar. The suit argues the coronavirus has created a dangerous environment for the incarcerated in violation of their constitutional rights.
The American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups behind the case, estimates that some 300 pre-trial inmates—or about 15 percent of the jail’s population—are “medically vulnerable.” Those include detainees over the age of 55 and those with chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or obesity—factors that raise the risk of negative health consequences from a coronavirus infection.
“It’s a matter of not only grave concern for them, but for the community,” says Andrea Woods, a staff attorney with the ACLU. “This outbreak, if left to its current course, will hurt not only our clients, but people who work in the jail and people in the community whose healthcare resources will be unnecessarily tapped.”
She says detainees at 201 Poplar cannot adequately protect themselves from contracting the virus because of crowded conditions and limited ability to practice good hygiene.
At least 150 inmates and dozens of jail employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Of the reported number of cases amongst detainees, only three are still recovering in medical isolation, the Sheriff’s Office says. A spokesperson declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.
The current population at 201 Poplar is roughly 1,800, down from about 2,500 at the beginning of the year. Though reform efforts were already underway when the local COVID pandemic hit, the state mandated that law enforcement agencies further reduce local incarceration numbers.
In an effort to thin out the jail, the District Attorney's office announced in March that prosecutors were streamlining cases where defendants had already agreed to plead guilty, and dismissing certain low-level charges.
“We are looking everyday to identify people that we can safely, reasonably and responsibly release from jail and back into the community,” District Attorney Amy Weirich said in a public message earlier this spring.
But the ACLU contends there are still people awaiting their trials in detainment who do not need to be.
“It basically starts by releasing people who are incarcerated only because they can’t afford a financial condition of release—probably money bail—or [are incarcerated] just because they were only arrested for a technical violation of probation or parole,” Woods says.
The ACLU says their request accounts for public safety. In instances of medically vulnerable detainees whose discharges may pose a threat to the community or are at risk of not returning for trial, a judge is asked to weigh the case individually, but urgently.
“We would offer the presumption should be release, although there are obviously going to be close calls where the judge is going to have to make an evaluation,” Woods says.
The ACLU won a similar lawsuit on Thursday, prompting a judge to order the release of vulnerable inmates at a jail in Michigan.