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"I fear that I may die in here." Inmates at Oakland County Jail plead for help in lawsuit


Updated: 4:30 p.m.

Legal and advocacy groups say time is running short in the effort to prevent a surge of COVID-19 infections in the Oakland County Jail. 

The groups are involved in a lawsuit against Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, Curtis Childs, Corrective Services Commander, and the county over conditions in the jail.

Groups representing the five inmate plaintifss in the case include Advancement Project National Office, Civil Rights Corps, LaRene & Kriger P.L.C., Law Firm of Pitt, McGhee, Palmer and Rivers, Michigan Liberation, and the ACLU.

On Thursday, attorneys for the inmates submitted an inspection report from Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes, an infectious disease expert, who says the jail urgently needs to reduce the inmate population as well as increase screening for COVID 19.  

From his report: 

Implementing social distancing inside the Jail is impossible at current jail population levels. Therefore, reducing the inmate population to allow for effective social distancing is the only way to protect medically vulnerable inmates. Significantly, my inspection did not reveal any additional measures being taken to protect medically vulnerable inmates, who appeared to be mixed in with the general population. Inmates at high-risk of severe disease and death from COVID-19 infection need to be identified, and released unless they can be confined in conditions that provide for 24-7 social distancing

Franco-Paredes also says the jail should test newly admitted prisoners, even if asymptomatic, as well as test current inmates if they have one or more symptoms of COVID-19.

ACLU Attorney Phil Mayor says the inspection is evidence that the jail should immediately release the inmates at greatest risk from the coronavirus.

"Medically vulnerable people who face a heightened risk of death, serious illness or organ damage when they're infected, they just have no business being in a jail and potentially having to serve a death sentence," he said.

Franco-Paredes' report noted other issues at the jail, including unsanitary conditions like jail toilets, which have no lids, thus allowing fecal matter -- "a particularly efficient pathway of transmission" - to be disbursed when flushed.

In affidavits, inmates said the jail began to implement limited social distancing as well as mandatory mask wearing right before the inspection by Franco-Paredes. Immediately after the inspection, they said the jail eliminated the changes.

The lawsuit, filed on April 17, alleges that in addition to the unsafe conditions, guards move inmates to the building where there is a COVID-19 outbreak, as punishment for infractions, including complaining about the conditions.

Jamaal Cameron, in his affidavit, says he was one of those who was punished by being moved into the building with the outbreak.  Cameron says he has bronchitis, high blood pressure, and severe sleep apnea. 

He says because of his medical conditions, he is terrified that if he is exposed to coronavirus, he might die as a result.  "No one deserves that," he said.

Cameron says he was put into "the tank," in the main building as punishment.  The tank is a holding cell in the jail.  From his affidavit:

The tank has no beds. There are ten of us in the cell, and we have to sleep on a concrete floor with a thin blanket that is not enough to keep anyone warm. We are all extremely close to each other and are essentially forced to cuddle. We are in Cell R4. The cell immediately next to ours is Cell R5, and that is where people with coronavirus are being held. I could reach out my hand from my cell and reach into cell R5.

Another inmate, Raj Lee, in his affidavit, also says he was moved to "the tank," as punishment.  He says he was later moved into the cell next door - after suspected COVID-19 infected inmates were moved out of it. From his affidavit:

On April 11, 2020, everyone from my cell was immediately moved into that cell without it having been cleaned at all. I know that the cell was not cleaned before we moved into it because I did not see anyone come to clean it, and there is still hair from the previous inmates in it, the floor is wet, and it is apparent that the toilets have not been cleaned. Given the fact that the prior inmates were presumed to have been exposed to COVID-19, I felt that my life was placed at risk.
On April 12, 2020, two more inmates were placed into my cell. They informed me that they were previously upstairs in a cell that was quarantined for presumed COVID-19 and that one of the individuals they were quarantined with died last night. Nothing is being done to limit contact between these individuals and others in my cell. I feel that my life is even more at risk now.
I have two small children and I am worried about what will happen if I am exposed to COVID-19. I fear that I may die in here.

Undersheriff Mike McCabe, in a voicemail message left for Michigan Radio on Tuesday in reference to a previous story, said, "every one of those allegations in that lawsuit are ridiculous and beyond belief.  This lawsuit is a joke."

In an email sent Thursday, McCabe said the jail currently has a population of 672, the lowest level in his 42-year career. He added that MDOC inspectors have told him the Oakland County Jail is "the gold standard" for county jails in Michigan.

McCabe disputed the findings of Franco-Paredes in his inspection report that newly arrested inmates are not being properly screened or isolated from the rest of the population, saying "We have numerous protocols in place for new arrests who are automatically quarantined, as well as areas for those who may have been exposed to someone who tests positive."

Legal arguments will be heard on Monday before U.S. District Court Judge Linda Parker.

This story was updated to include the names of all the groups representing the plaintiffs.

Defendants are Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, Commander of  Corrective Services Curtis Childs, and Oakland County

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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