U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman on Friday declined to rule in favor of a lawsuit seeking the emergency release from Shelby County Jail of detainees deemed vulnerable to COVID-19, but various supporters of the litigation are still managing to find a silver lining in the ruling.
Judge Lipman found that, while there were indeed issues “with how the jail is detaining medically vulnerable detainees amid this pandemic,” authorities at the jail had taken steps to remedy some of the health risks and problems.
In a news release, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, which was one of several plaintiffs, acknowledged some of the improvements:
“ [T]he jail changed some of its practices, including limiting the number of detainees brought to court and how they were being held while awaiting hearings to prevent co-mingling between potentially quarantined and non-quarantined inmates; increasing the availability and use of videoconference access to hearings; providing cleaning supplies for sanitizing individual and common areas; and ensuring all detainees wear masks and imposing social distancing where possible throughout the jail.”
And Judge Lipman noted several matters still in need of correction:
“[G]rave areas of concern persist,” she said..”...[T]he facts found by the Court indicate that detainees do sleep within less than 6 feet of each other, contrary to the CDC guidelines. … detainees do not socially distance during mealtimes. … Also, while detainees are given their medications one-by-one during pill call, they are lined together without social distancing. … Requiring medically-vulnerable detainees to receive their medications by waiting in a crowded line is a cruel ask.”
She concluded, however, that “to the extent these public health failures persist, they … can be easily remedied. … It behooves the jail to work creatively toward improving these conditions."
Besides the ACLU, other plaintiffs were Just City; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP; and attorneys Brice Timmons and Steve Mulroy of Memphis.
Mulroy responded to the ruling by saying, in part, “We're glad the court recognizes that conditions at the jail were severely lacking before we filed suit; that improvements have been made as a result of our suit; and, most importantly, that much more still can and should be done to eliminate unnecessary pandemic risks at the jail.”
Timmons said “Justice and humanity demand that we continue our work to hold the sheriff accountable. He has a duty to protect the community, including those in his custody.”