Civil Rights Groups Press Federal Court to Reinstate Lawsuit
March 5, 2021, Baton Rouge, LA – Today, individuals incarcerated at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison urged a federal judge to reinstate a lawsuit filed against the jail for its failure to adequately protect them from the spread of COVID-19, and seeking CDC-compliant protective measures in light of the pandemic crisis. The motion filed today argues that, in dismissing the case, the court improperly disregarded facts in the complaint detailing profound medical neglect and delay inside the prison, and considered erroneous claims by prison officials that risk of transmission had been sufficiently mitigated. The case must be reinstated, the motion argues, because the plaintiffs remain at serious risk of life-threatening COVID-19 infection.
“This litigation has shown jail officials have a complete disregard for the truth and for the people in the jail,” said David Utter, Executive Director of Fair Fight Initiative. “Quarantining people who are infected with or exposed to COVID is essential to stopping the spread, but a consistent theme we hear from people currently in the jail is that jail officials move people in and out of the so-called quarantined areas every day, directly violating the CDC guidelines that they claim to follow.”
The motion filed today details the way in which the prison cannot implement elementary social distancing requirements and a lack of cleaning products and PPE, and even actions taken by the prison that have increased the risk of transmission to the plaintiffs and other incarcerated people.
Some measures taken by the jail, purportedly to manage virus transmission, have even increased the potential for infection. Twice daily, during roll call and pill distribution (and – ironically – during a few, fleeting weeks when the jail provided daily temperature checks), prisoners are forced to stand close together in lines. Masks are infrequently and inadequately cleaned – and then redistributed among the prisoners. The jail even rejected a donation of N95 masks from the organization VOTE that could have been used to protect detainees. Attorneys in the case say these are glaring instances of knowing medical neglect.
Attorneys note that the jail’s medical neglect is even more constitutionally problematic because 80 percent of those detained at the jail are being held in pre-trial detention, and are therefore entitled to greater constitutional protections. Many of the people detained at the jail have been held in supposed “COVID-19 isolation wings” in a formally condemned portion of the prison. Re-opened to house symptomatic prisoners, these spaces are filthy and unsafe, plagued with black mold, large rats and spiders, and “questionably potable” water. Symptomatic prisoners have been confined in these cells nearly 24-hours-a-day, did not receive regular medical assessments, and, when asking for extra time out of this solitary confinement to shower or make phone calls, were beaten, maced, and threatened by guards.
More than 79 percent of the roughly 1,200 community members inside East Baton Rouge Parish Prison are Black. Black Louisianians die of COVID-19 at 2.65 times the rate of others in the state. The criminal legal system disproportionately impacts Black people, and advocates argue that decarceration must be a central issue in the fight to save Black lives during this pandemic.
“Over the last year, the officials running the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison have failed to take basic steps to protect the Black, Brown, and financially limited people who are confined there from COVID-19,” said Miriam R. Nemeth, Co-Deputy Director and Senior Attorney for the Advancement Project National Office’s Justice Project. “Amidst a global pandemic, jail officials have demonstrated a shocking disregard for the health and safety of the people in their charge; they appear more focused on undermining and denying the horrifying accounts from inside the jail than actually addressing the unsanitary, life-threatening conditions they have helped create. This lawsuit is a necessary step toward not only winning safety for the people trapped in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, but also forcing accountability onto local officials who have gone to great lengths to avoid the calls for transparency and humanity from our partners at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison Reform Coalition and other community groups in East Baton Rouge.”
Today’s filing is a motion to reconsider the court’s earlier dismissal of the lawsuit. It argues that the judge failed to apply the correct legal standard to a motion to dismiss, incorrectly disputing well pleaded facts, and failing to apply the correct constitutional standards to those held in pre-trial detention.
Said Baher Azmy, Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, “The plaintiffs have brought this case because of the unique threat from COVID-19 in prisons and jails, but, more fundamentally, because they demand recognition of their humanity and protection for those we choose to imprison. That we insist on jailing people in horrible conditions even during a lethal pandemic says everything about what they are fighting for.”
The federal class action lawsuit Belton v. Gautreaux was brought by the Advancement Project, Center for Constitutional Rights, Hogan Lovells, the Fair Fight Initiative, and Bill Quigley of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law on behalf of people imprisoned at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in Louisiana.
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.
Advancement Project National Office is a next-generation, multi-racial civil rights organization. Rooted in the great human rights struggles for equality and justice, we exist to fulfill America’s promise of a caring, inclusive and just democracy. We use innovative tools and strategies to strengthen social movements and achieve high impact policy change. Visi twww.advancementproject.org/hometo learn more.
Fair Fight Initiative works in the Deep South exposing mistreatment by law enforcement, including in prisons and jails, and fighting 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.