ACLU files lawsuit seeking release or vaccination of more San Diego County inmates after latest Covid-19 outbreak

A class action suit filed Wednesday calls for decreased prison populations and increased inoculations in the wake of a recent Covid-19 outbreak at a San Diego detention facility.

(CNN)After a recent outbreak of Covid-19 infections at the largest correctional facility in San Diego County, a class-action lawsuit was filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union and a community advocacy group against San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, demanding he protect local incarcerated people from further infections.

The lawsuit calls for Gore to reduce the jail population to levels where people can safely distance, as well as provide widespread vaccinations in jails at levels to ensure everyone's safety.
Prison populations have been at high risk for Covid-19 during the pandemic due to inmates' proximity to one another. Some states have classified correctional workers among those first to receive vaccines, yet the prison vaccination timeline has varied. A federal judge ruled last month that inmates in Oregon were to be inoculated immediately, jumping ahead of many of the state's other citizens.
      The lawsuit filed in San Diego County Superior Court came a day after the San Diego County Sheriff's Department announced an outbreak of Covid-19 cases had occurred at one of its detention facilities.
        The sheriff's department said 106 inmates were tested for the coronavirus on March 6 after potential contact with an infected inmate at the George Bailey Detention Facility in Otay Mesa, in the southern section of San Diego. Of the inmates tested, 46 were found to be positive.
          The inmate at the center of the outbreak was booked in mid-February at the San Diego Central Jail, according to the sheriff's department, and was placed in quarantine for seven days with a temperature check twice a day, following jail protocol.
          He was asymptomatic and was transferred to the George Bailey Detention Facility and housed in dormitory housing. He started showing flu-like symptoms on February 27, 12 days after he was initially booked, and later tested positive for Covid-19.
          The plaintiff in the lawsuit is 55-year-old Terry Leroy Jones, an inmate at San Diego Central Jail, who was infected in a different outbreak. He is characterized in the lawsuit as high-risk with a multitude of medical ailments. The lawsuit alleges that the virus wouldn't have spread if those transferred to his close-quarters medical unit had first been confirmed to be Covid-19-free.
          The outbreak is "stark evidence of the consequences for the sheriff's failure to implement basic safety measures," Jonathan Markovitz, a staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties and counsel for the plaintiff, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
          The sheriff's department said in its latest update on Covid-19 protocols in county jails, posted Thursday, "We do not underestimate the challenges we face to keep Covid-19 from entering our county jails and have taken immediate action to safeguard the lives of people in our custody and those who work in our facilities."
          CNN has reached out to the San Diego Sheriff's Department and Gore for comment regarding the lawsuit and was referred to their Thursday statement.
          "As our nation continues to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, the sheriff's department will evaluate any key information learned through contact investigations and adjust accordingly," the department said. "Our protocols to date have been effective in limiting Covid-19 cases within our jail system."
          But ACLU attorney Markovitz disagrees. "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," Markovitz said in a statement. "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."
          The lawsuit calls for immediate action.
          "San Diego County is at a crossroads," the complaint states. "We are in the midst of an extended period of previously unimaginable suffering disproportionately borne by segments of our community already disadvantaged in terms of health care, housing, and economic opportunity, who are also disproportionately incarcerated."
          Brody McBride, a partner with Singleton, Schreiber, McKenzie & Scott, LLP, and an attorney for the plaintiff in the lawsuit, called jails "pandemic hotbeds, ripe for Covid-19 outbreaks."
          "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," McBride said in a statement. "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."
          The George Bailey Detention Facility currently has 1,305 inmates, according to a San Diego County Sheriff's Department Covid-19 jail status report.
          Vaccines are now being offered to inmates 65 and older. As of March 10, 26 inmates have received the vaccine, and 25 others refused, the sheriff's department said. A vaccine delivery from the county's public health department is anticipated on March 15, which will be administered to high-risk individuals.
          "The Sheriff's Department does not have direct access to the vaccine," the department said Thursday. "We will continue to work closely with public health officials, from whom we receive our supply, to vaccinate the remaining inmate population when the appropriate phases and tiers open. We are confident our efforts to vaccinate the jail population will be a major benefit to the inmates in our care."
            No inmates are currently hospitalized for Covid-19, but one is being treated for another medical reason and happens to be Covid-19 positive, according to the sheriff's department.
            So far, one employee and one inmate have died from the virus since last March in San Diego County facilities, according to department data released in early March. There have been over 1,200 cumulative positive cases, with over 13,000 tests administered.