SAN DIEGO – Today, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC); Community Advocates for Just & Moral Governance (MoGo); and Singleton, Schreiber, McKenzie & Scott, LLP (SSMS) filed a class action lawsuit demanding that San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore take steps to protect people incarcerated in local jails from exposure to COVID-19.
Filed in San Diego County Superior Court, the lawsuit demands that Sheriff Gore reduce the population of the jails to levels that allow people to practice and maintain safe social distancing, and to provide widespread vaccinations in the jails at levels that can ensure the safety of everyone incarcerated there.
San Diego County jails are in the midst of a months-long COVID-19 outbreak where at least two people, Edel Corrales Loredo and Mark Armendo, died of COVID-19 after apparently contracting the virus while incarcerated in county jail.
In late December 2020, there were 527 people with active COVID-19 infections in custody. There have been more than 1,200 cumulative positive cases in the jails since the start of the pandemic.
On Tuesday, the Sheriff’s Department announced a troubling development in the outbreak of COVID-19 cases in county-run jails. In a press release, the sheriff said 106 people were tested for COVID-19 after a person at the George Bailey Detention Facility tested positive for the virus. Of the 106 tests, 46 people tested positive.
The inmate, who was hospitalized after developing symptoms on Feb. 27, was booked into the San Diego Central Jail on Feb. 15. After quarantining for seven days, he was transferred to the George Bailey facility, where he was moved to different modules in the same housing unit. In December, the ACLUF-SDIC sent a letter to Sheriff Gore urging him to take action to prevent the COVID-19 crisis in county jails from getting worse. The sheriff’s response acknowledged his authority to release people to ensure their safety but emphasized his determination not to exercise this authority.
“Sheriff Gore has a statutory duty and a moral obligation to ensure the safety of people who are trusted to his care, but he has a long and troubling history of shirking this duty and failing to meet his obligations,” said Jonathan Markovitz, a staff attorney with the ACLUF-SDIC. “Vaccines offer a glimmer of hope for the future, but as we continue to learn of ever more virulent and potentially deadly variants of the virus that causes COVID-19, common sense precautions are more important than ever. Tuesday’s report of a dramatic escalation in positive cases provides stark evidence of the consequences for the sheriff’s failure to implement basic safety measures.”
Public health officials have said vaccinations and basic protective measures, like social distancing, are crucial to preventing the spread of COVID-19. But, to date, Sheriff Gore has failed to announce plans to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to most incarcerated people all while conditions at some of the jails remain too crowded to practice social distancing.
“Our carceral system had issues before COVID-19, but the virus has magnified and exacerbated the issues present in our jails,” said Geneviéve Jones-Wright, executive director at Community Advocates for Just & Moral Governance. “We all must be clear on this fact: Incarcerated people are people. Their lives have value. The human beings in our jails have not been sentenced to death and should not fear a death sentence because they are locked up. This is a moral issue. This is about our standards of human decency as much as it is about public health.”
Brody A. McBride, a partner with Singleton, Schreiber, McKenzie & Scott, LLP, added: “Jails are pandemic hotbeds, ripe for COVID-19 outbreaks. The close living quarters, mass transports, and inter-facility transfers of inmates all but guarantee super-spreader events. The San Diego Sheriff's Department has been on notice of this reality since early 2020, yet the number of jail staff and inmates hit with COVID-19 continues to rise. Beyond the tragic toll the virus has taken on jail staff, individual inmates, and their loved ones, sick inmates require medical care and sometimes a hospital bed in the community. The cost of this care, paid for by taxpayers, is going to continue rising until the majority of jail staff and inmates are vaccinated.”