Lawsuit Seeks to Dramatically Reduce Baton Rouge, LA Jail Population Due to Coronavirus
August 20, 2020
In the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, 70 people tested positive for the novel coronavirus as of late May, according to the sheriff’s office. On May 27, 2020, Fair Fight Initiative (FFI) lawyers teamed up with community members and other civil rights organizations to file a class-action lawsuit to protect people detained in the jail, and any future prisoners booked into it, from the disease.
The federal lawsuit alleges that prison conditions and medical care are unconstitutional, and the jail so overcrowded that people detained there cannot social distance and stay safe. Wings of the jail that were closed previously are now being used to house people who test positive for the virus, and there was a reason those wings were closed down years ago—they are in terrible shape, ridden with mold, filthy, and vermin-infested. Placing individuals sick with COVID-19 is simply unconscionable, and according to the lawsuit, unconstitutional.
FFI’s Executive Director David Utter noted that “Baton Rouge’s leaders have known for years that the jail is unsafe for our community. The notion that we would expose anyone to the jail’s conditions and health care system during this pandemic makes no sense.” The suit seeks the immediate release of the medically vulnerable, who are especially susceptible to death or serious injury from COVID-19.
On June 10, 2020, the federal court heard hours of testimony on Plaintiffs’ motion for immediate relief. Even though the warden admitted under oath that portions of the jail are in “deplorable” condition, and the medical director saw no need to test people who may have the virus but are asymptomatic, the federal judge denied relief. Within weeks of the court’s order, lawyers for the sheriff filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit outright, claiming that at the timing of filing their motion, no males in the jail have tested positive for the virus.
FFI and our co-counsel knew better. After hearing from over 100 individuals in the jail, we knew that new cases were popping up, and jail staff continued to fail to take the necessary precautions to protect incarcerated individuals in the jail. On August 18, Plaintiffs responded by filing an opposition to the sheriff. Along with declarations from experts, twelve people in the jail provided statements describing the horrific conditions in the jail, and the harrowing circumstances caused by the jail’s neglect.
“The guys tell us that the big dorms—the Q lines—have about 100 people in them, just as the jail did before the pandemic,” said David Utter, Executor Director of the Fair Fight Initiative. “ As the pandemic rages in the community, the Baton Rouge criminal injustice apparatus operates as if these were normal times, detaining people unnecessarily for excessively long periods of time. It is simply outrageous.”
Contact: David Utter, Executive Director
410 E Bay St. Savannah, GA 31401 • Phone: (912) 236-9559 • Fax: (912) 236-1884 • https://www.fairfightinitiative.org/