Advocates Warn Outbreak Is Imminent Inside Prison
May 27, 2020, Baton Rouge, LA– Today, several civil rights and racial justice groups filed a federal lawsuit calling for the release of people inside East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, arguing that parish officials are risking the lives of everyone inside and the community at large because of their failure to respond to the threat of COVID-19. Naming the City of Baton Rouge and the Parish of East Baton Rouge, Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, and Dennis Grimes, warden of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, the lawsuit filed by Advancement Project National Office, the Center for Constitutional Rights, The Fair Fight Initiative, Hogan Lovells LLP, and local civil rights attorneys in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana argues that East Baton Rouge Parish officials are violating the constitutional rights of people in the jail by exposing them to risk of infection, illness and death during the coronavirus pandemic.
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In addition to immediate release, the lawsuit also asks the court to order East Baton Rouge Parish officials to adopt comprehensive measures to protect the safety and health of the people in the jail—particularly the population of medically vulnerable people who are more at risk of contracting the virus. Social distancing--recommended by public health officials as the single most effective weapon against the risk of infection--is impossible in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison because more than 1,200 community members are currently held at the facility.
“Time is running out to save the lives of people confined inside the facility,” said Miriam Nemeth, a Senior Staff Attorney with the Justice Project at Advancement Project National Office. “The East Baton Rouge Parish Prison has a history of abysmal conditions that dehumanize people held within the facility--this lawsuit is a result of years of advocacy to improve conditions inside the jail. We must act now.”
On a typical day, jails and prisons provide inadequate health care and are places that cause serious harm to the people confined in them. Now, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the stakes are heightened. As of May 14, there have been 93 confirmed cases of COVID-19 inside the facility, according to the lawsuit. And 167 Department of Corrections officials have contracted COVID-19, and several high-level officials have died. Litigators and advocates estimate that about 30 percent of the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison population is medically vulnerable. Despite that, those held inside the jail lack consistent access to soap, sanitizer and cleaning agents to fight against infection. Families are outraged and local advocates are fighting for the release of this vulnerable population.
More than 79 percent of the roughly 1,200 community members inside East Baton Rouge Parish Prison are Black, according to data collected on May 21. Black Louisianians die of COVID-19 at 2.65 times the rate of other races. The criminal legal system disproportionately impacts Black people, and therefore, decarceration must be a central issue in the fight to save Black lives during this pandemic.
“Prisons are inherently brutal, dehumanizing places of state control and violence; the East Baton Rouge Prison is particularly notorious for its dangerousness and decrepit conditions,” said Baher Azmy, Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “For Black people, Louisiana is the incarceration capital, so it is hard to imagine things could get worse for individuals detained there, but defendants’ reckless attitude to the spread of COVID-19 takes the jail across the line from dangerous to deadly.”
“The people detained in East Baton Rouge are rightfully seeking basic protections from the dangers of COVID-19,” said Lillian Hardy, partner at the Hogan Lovells law firm. “We are asking the court to require officials to take steps to safeguard the health of people who due to their confinement are unable to properly protect themselves from infection and are at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19. We are further requesting the release of those who are medically vulnerable, for whom contracting COVID-19 could cause grave illness or death.”
The lawsuit also outlines the following conditions inside the facility: individuals experiencing shortness of breath or a fever are not immediately tested or quarantined, if they are at all; staff are not consistently wearing protective personal equipment such as gloves and masks; there is a shortage of gloves and masks for people confined in the jail; and retaliation from jail staff against those seeking medical intervention to protect against infection. Advocates working with the litigation groups including Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) and the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalitionexpressed for years conditions inside the facility need to change.
“Baton Rouge’s leaders have known for years that the Jail is unsafe for our community. Too many people have died violent and unnecessary deaths prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The notion that we would expose anyone to the Jail’s conditions and health care system during this pandemic makes no sense.” said David Utter, Executive Director of the Fair Fight Initiative.
"Justice is being ignored. Elected officials have not heeded the call of community leaders to release the vulnerable people being exposed to coronavirus inside this jail. No one, in or outside the jail, deserves to be mistreated like this," said Bill Quigley, an attorney in the case and Professor at Loyola University Law School.
As COVID-19 continues to spread inside the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, many of the people incarcerated there will require urgent care. An expanded outbreak will cause additional death and devastation to countless lives, according to the suit, and would overwhelm the capacity of the prison’s health services, exacerbating the death toll and the risks to all involved—within and outside the facility.
“Judges have the power to protect public safety in the COVID-19 pandemic by releasing as many people as possible. We know that prisons are incapable of providing adequate healthcare in general, let alone during an outbreak like we’re seeing today,” said Thomas B. Harvey, Justice Project Director at Advancement Project National Office. “People in the jails and prisons, those who work there, and the general public are at greater risk if we leave people inside than if we let them return home.”
In efforts to heavily pressure local and state governments to release people immediately, Advancement Project National Office has createdadvocacy tools as a call to action for#FreeAndSafecommunities. Advancement Project National Office has filed similar suits in St. Louis, Miami, and Oakland and Wayne County, Michigan. Community members can also urge local policy makers to release community members in jail with an online call to action made possible through a partnership with Ben & Jerry’s.
To read the background and profiles of four of the people bringing the case, visit this Center for Constitutional Rights resource page.
Advancement Project National Office, founded in 1999, is a next generation, multi-racial civil rights organization with a mission to fulfill America’s promise of a caring, inclusive and just democracy.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition (EBRPPRC) advances solutions and works collaboratively with criminal justice coalitions to reduce mass incarceration and to uphold the basic human rights of those incarcerated at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison and their families through education, advocacy, transparency and accountability.
Fair Fight Initiative Through litigation and community advocacy, Fair Fight Initiative exposes mistreatment in the law enforcement system and works to end mass incarceration.
Hogan Lovells is a global law firm committed to providing pro bono legal assistance on behalf of underserved populations, and has long represented incarcerated individuals seeking justice. The firm is presently assisting with several matters addressing the treatment of individuals detained in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.