At a Glance
The complaint and TRO were filed in the Middle District of Louisiana on May 27, 2020.
- Baher Azmy
- Omar Farah
- Elsa Maria Mota
The Advancement Project, Hogan Lovells, Fair Fight Initiative, and Bill Quigley of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law
Belton v. Gautreaux is a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of people imprisoned at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison in Louisiana. The lawsuit and an accompanying motion for a temporary restraining order (TRO) seek the immediate release of a subclass of people who are particularly medically vulnerable, and demands a total overhaul of the virus transmission prevention procedures within the facility in order to comply with prevailing guidelines around reducing viral transmission to decrease the risk for the remaining detainees. The complaint addresses the notorious facility’s failure to provide adequate medical care, protection against outbreaks of infectious disease, or safe and sanitary facilities—the people housed there do not even have consistent access to soap. The complaint and TRO warn that the inevitability of an uncontrollable coronavirus outbreak in the facility—there are already dozens of confirmed cases—renders the continued detention of medically vulnerable individuals a potential death sentence, and the lack of preventative measures creates a needlessly heightened risk for all of the people held there.
The filings are supported by declarations from all of the plaintiffs detailing the dangerous, decrepit, and filthy conditions in the jail and their fears of contracting the virus. The facility is using a formerly condemned part of the jail to place those who contract COVID-19 in lockdown conditions for 23+ hours a day, causing additional anxiety and stress regularly associated with solitary confinement. The filing is also supported by testimony from two experts, Dr. Susan Hassig and Dr. Fred Rottnek, who document the deficiencies in the facility’s COVID-related practices, the certainty of a widespread and uncontainable outbreak, and the necessity of releasing medically vulnerable individuals. We are also requesting that Dr. Rottnek be permitted to conduct an emergency inspection of the facility to recommend necessary long-term strategies to manage COVID-19.
This filing is part of a national effort to release individuals from ICE detention and state and local prisons. Other countries are acting boldly—in the name of justice and public health—to free prisoners. For example, Iran released approximately 80,000 prisoners from their jails following the COVID-19 outbreak there. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief the inhumanity of the vast detention and incarceration system in the United States, which even under normal circumstances was cruel, dehumanizing, and overcrowded. While this litigation, for now, seeks emergency release only of the particularly vulnerable individuals, it is situated in broader calls for a positive vision of mass decarceration.