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Judge orders release of medically vulnerable Oakland County Jail inmates; sheriff pledges appeal

Jack Amick
Creative Commons

A federal judge has ruled that Oakland County must set up a process to release medically vulnerable inmates from its jail.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit that alleged the Oakland County Jail has taken inadequate steps to protect inmates from COVID-19.

Judge Linda Parker agreed, and ordered the jail to do more to protect inmates. She also ordered that steps be taken to release the most vulnerable inmates.

“In this case, Plaintiffs have shown a substantial likelihood that Defendants are being deliberately indifferent to the risk that COVID-19 poses to Jail inmates, particularly medically-vulnerable inmates,” Parker wrote in her opinion. “Without injunctive relief, Plaintiffs will suffer immediate irreparable injury for which there is no adequate remedy at law, in that they will face a high risk of serious illness or death from exposure to coronavirus.”

Parker ordered the county to turn over a list of inmates with medical vulnerabilities within three business days, “to enable the Court to implement a system for considering the release on bond or other alternatives to detention in the Jail.” The county was also ordered to submit its position on why each inmate should or should not be released, and any conditions that should be put in place if bond is granted.

Plaintiff’s lawyers say there are currently around 200 medically vulnerable inmates inside the jail.

“In extraordinary cases like this, federal judges have the authority to release detainees on bail while their habeas petitions are pending,” Parker wrote.

Prisoner advocates hailed the ruling as a landmark decision amid many legal attempts to free inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We believe that a jail sentence should not be a death sentence for anyone, regardless of what they did that landed them inside the jail,” said Krithika Santhanam, a staff attorney for the Advancement Project, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. “But there will be a process in place for how folks are released. And I think that's important to understand that it's not that this order has been issued, and tomorrow the gates are going to be flung open.”

Earl Burton, a community organizer with the group Michigan Liberation, said Parker “made the right decision.”

“I think it's a start," Burton said. "And I think that it should set a precedent for other jails in other counties around the country.”

But Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard fears exactly that. He issued a statement blasting Parker’s ruling, saying that “the law enforcement community is gravely concerned with the consequences of Judge Parker’s decision.”

Bouchard said Parker's opinion "infers all medically vulnerable inmates currently incarcerated in any jail or prison in the United States must either be placed in home confinement or released, irrespective of the inmate’s violent history and irrespective of the proactive response efforts taken by the facility. Additionally, Judge Parker’s decision could prohibit the incarceration of any new arrestee, regardless of their crime, simply because they may be classified as medically vulnerable.”

Bouchard went on to say that while a total of 47 Oakland County Jail inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, only six remain in quarantine.

“This reduction has occurred as a direct result of the Oakland County Jail’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bouchard said. “Those six inmates remain in quarantine. Additionally, no inmate at the Oakland County Jail has required hospitalization nor died because of COVID-19.”

Bouchard said his office has already filed an appeal of Parker’s ruling, “and will be asking the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to stay the release of any medically vulnerable inmate from the Oakland County Jail until appellate review is concluded.”

Plaintiff’s attorney Krithika Santhanam calls that “unfortunate, but indicative of how the defendants have operated throughout the course of this litigation. They would rather spend their time fighting us further on appeal, rather than figuring out what is the quickest, easiest way to release the maximum number of people who are currently under grave risk of harm.”

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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