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Judge orders Oakland County Jail to protect inmates from the coronavirus

Prison bars
flickr user Thomas Hawk

A federal district judge has ordered Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard to take steps to protect inmates housed at the jail from the coronavirus.

American Civil Liberties Union Attorney Phil Mayor says the lawsuit was filed because the jail has been exposing inmates to unsafe, inhumane, and degrading conditions.

He says the jail has been refusing to provide soap, disinfectant, and hand sanitizer for inmates, and they have to shower in filthy facilities.

And he says the jail has refused to test a number of inmates who have symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, shortness of breath, and cough.

Mayor says one inmate was refused a COVID-19 test by a nurse who said his shortness of breath was not a symptom, because "you're still able to speak."

He says another inmate who was extremely ill with COVID-19 was left alone in a cell for four days.

"Food was left for him outside his room, but he was too weak to retrieve it," says Mayor.  "So it was simply picked up without being given to him, and taken away. For four days."

Mayor says the jail also retaliated against inmates who expressed concerns about conditions, by threatening to move them to the main building, where most of the COVID-19 infected inmates are housed.

Federal district judge Linda Parker issued a temporary restraining order against Sheriff Bouchard, Corrective Services Commander Curtis Childs, and the County of Oakland, saying the conditions at the jail violate inmates' 8th and 14th Amendment rights.

The order requires the jail to provide soap, paper towels, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting supplies as well as access to showers and clean towels and laundry. Jail staff must wear PPE, and inmates showing symptoms of COVID-19 must be tested.

The order also requires, to the extent possible, social distancing of a minimum of six feet between prisoners, and it bans retaliation by transfering prisoners to areas of the jail with higher infection rates.

The lawsuit also asks for the release of medically vulnerable inmates. A telephone hearing on that part of the lawsuit is scheduled for April 24.

Teresa Drake is the mother of a 21-year-old who is in Oakland County Jail right now on a probation violation. His name is being withheld because he fears retaliation.

Drake says her son has liver and kidney damage from a previous shooting injury. She says she and her son's other family members are extremely worried for his safety.

"I think they should release them," she says of medically vulnerable inmates at the jail. "It's a life threatening situation in there."

Michigan Radio left a message asking for comment from Oakland County Sheriff Bouchard or Undersheriff Michael McCabe.  The call was not returned.

Michigan Radio listeners, readers, and reporters are rising to the challenge every day. If you can, please support essential journalism during this crisis.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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