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Lawsuit: Oakland County Jail should release vulnerable inmates

Inmates in Michigan's county jails could be housed in smaller cells under a bill passed by the Michigan house this week.
Inmates in Michigan's county jails could be housed in smaller cells under a bill passed by the Michigan house this week.

A new lawsuit demands the release of medically vulnerable inmates from the Oakland County Jail while the COVID-19 pandemic rages.

The civil rights groups behind the lawsuit call for the immediate release of inmates with conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order last month allowing those people to be released early, so long as they don’t pose a threat to public safety, as well as others serving time for things like traffic offenses or failure to appear in court.

The lawsuit also demands the county do more to curb the spread of COVID-19 within the jail.

“The jail is completely not in compliance with both the CDC recommendations for what is necessary to protect from exposure to this virus, and prevent the risk of transmission,” said Krithika Santhanam, a staff attorney with the Advancement Project. “Things like providing adequate hygiene supplies, disinfectant supplies, [and] making sure medical care is accessible inside the jail.

“There are folks who are clearly exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 who are not being properly tested. They are being placed in the same cells with people who are asymptomatic. There are folks incarcerated inside who work on different details as trustees, and that could be things like laundry or communal food preparation. And they're being forced to continue doing those tasks despite visibly exhibiting symptoms.”

The lawsuit also asks the judge to stop the jail from retaliating against inmates who complain by putting them in cells with infected people, Santhanam said.

Earl Burton of the group Michigan Liberation said people who can be freed should be freed, now.

“There are people who are under sentences that are three or four months down the road. They will be no more of a threat to public safety tomorrow,” Burton said. “We're saying some of these people should be released immediately to reduce the population, to try to come into compliance with the CDC regulations on social distancing.”

Those behind the lawsuit said the Oakland County Jail currently has around 800 inmates, and had reported 23 COVID-19 cases as of a week ago. Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard's office did not respond to Michigan Radio’s request for comment on the lawsuit, and an update on the status of the jail.

The lawsuit is seeking immediate action, said Phil Mayor of the ACLU of Michigan.

“Nobody who’s serving a jail sentence was sentenced to death, and that’s what’s going to happen if there’s not swift action,” Mayor said.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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