May 22, 2020

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SPARTANBURG, S.C. – Root & Rebound, The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center and Wyche, P.A. filed a lawsuit today in the United States District Court challenging Spartanburg County’s failure to protect incarcerated people from risks associated with a COVID-19 outbreak in custodial settings. Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc. (P&A) also joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff on behalf of incarcerated people with disabilities. Defendants named in the suit are Sheriff Chuck Wright and Jail Administrator Allen Freeman.

The suit seeks immediate protections for people incarcerated in the Spartanburg County Detention Center. Protections include policy and procedural changes to allow all incarcerated people and staff free, unlimited access to soap, disinfecting cleaners, and personal protective equipment and to require and enforce social distancing of six feet. Additionally, the suit seeks immediate relief for incarcerated people who are at particular risk of serious harm or death from COVID-19, including those who are over 55, are pregnant, or have defined underlying medical conditions.

This action follows a series of efforts made by Root & Rebound, the ACLU of South Carolina, and Appleseed Legal Justice Center to persuade officials to safely reduce the jail population and implement protective procedures in response to dire threats associated with a COVID-19 outbreak in correctional facilities.

“This lawsuit is imperative because ethically and constitutionally, we cannot overlook the humanity and needs of those incarcerated,” said Root & Rebound South Carolina Director Kate Weaver Patterson. “We are asking the courts to acknowledge and protect the constitutional rights of some of our most vulnerable, and in so doing, protect those incarcerated and the entire community from the spread of infection.  Local jails are a particularly important area of focus because the vast majority of individuals incarcerated in our jails are being detained pretrial, which means they have not been convicted of a crime and are presumed innocent.”

Incarcerated people are housed in close quarters, are often in poor health, are unable to engage in social distancing practices recommended by the CDC, and thus are at heightened risk of becoming infected with and dying from COVID-19. Because of this severe threat and evidence that COVID-19 is rapidly spreading throughout correctional settings across the country, public health experts have recommended the rapid release from custody of those who are most vulnerable.

The vast majority of people incarcerated in South Carolina’s jails are being detained pretrial and have not been convicted of a crime. They are presumed innocent but remain incarcerated simply because of an inability to pay bail.

“Jails and prisons have become epicenters for deadly COVID-19 outbreaks,” said ACLU of South Carolina Legal Director Susan Dunn. “On any given day in South Carolina, the majority of people in jail are there because they cannot afford to pay bail. South Carolina’s two-tiered justice system already disproportionately punishes people who are poor, and during this pandemic, economic hardship could amount to a death sentence. We are asking the courts to prevent the Spartanburg County Detention Center from becoming the next in a growing line of corrections institutions unnecessarily and gravely endangering people in their care.”

“People shouldn’t be forced endure conditions that pose grave and unnecessary risks to their health and their lives simply because they’ve been accused of a crime,” said South Carolina Appleseed Litigation Attorney Adam Protheroe. “People in jails are already more vulnerable than most to COVID-19 because of underlying health conditions or limited access to quality healthcare. We can’t allow people to be sentenced to death before they’ve even been tried.”

“Wyche is grateful for the opportunity to join the fight for the protection of the Spartanburg Community by seeking to improve conditions for incarcerated individuals and staff of the Spartanburg Jail,” said Rita Bolt Barker, Member at Wyche. “To preserve public health, we must guard against the spread of COVID-19 among our most vulnerable populations.”

“As the Protection and Advocacy organization for South Carolina, we advocate for the human, civil and legal rights for people with disabilities,” said Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities Executive Director Beth Franco. “This includes people with disabilities who are served by facilities, including our prison system. We want to ensure individuals in facilities are safe in light of COVID 19.”

Of the ten places in America with the largest COVID-19 outbreaks, seven are correctional institutions. Government models predicting the pandemic’s death toll fail to account for the impact of the virus on incarcerated populations, who will be infected and die at higher rates. A new epidemiological model shows that as many as 200,000 people could die from COVID-19 – double the government estimate – without swift, coordinated intervention to reduce prison and jail populations.

The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina Spartanburg Division and can be found here.