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Judge issues restraining order against Oakland County Jail in COVID-19 suit

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order Friday in response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates at the Oakland County Jail, instructing authorities to ensure that prisoners have access to soap and hand sanitizer and take other measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the lockup.

U.S. District Judge Linda Parker issued the order hours after a coalition of legal groups filed a suit against the jail and county officials, alleging that inmates aren't being adequately protected from COVID-19.

Filed Friday, the class-action lawsuit is a collaboration of local attorneys, the Advancement Project National Office, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Civil Rights Corps. The complaint names the jail, Sheriff Michael Bouchard and Corrections Commander Curtis Childs as defendants.

Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard

The complaint names six plaintiffs currently in the Oakland County Jail but represents all 800-plus current inmates, plus inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Jails and prisons are problems nationwide due to the virus,” said Cary McGehee, a Royal Oak attorney involved in the case. “But the Oakland County Jail is particularly bad and something needs to be done not just for our clients and other prisoners, but for the jail staff, vendors and the public.

“If they get ill and have to be transferred to already overwhelmed hospitals, that just presents other problems, takes up beds and exposes medical professionals.”

The lawsuit says prisoners are suffering “unconstitutional conditions” of unusual punishment and loss of due process and that an outbreak of the virus is imminent.

Parker's restraining order includes 16 points to be addressed by Oakland County authorities before a telephonic meeting with the judge Monday and a hearing next Friday.

Parker gave Oakland County authorities 10 days to comply with her order. She asked for a list of all inmates who are considered medically vulnerable to the virus due to age or underlying medical conditions.

She also asked county officials to list the inmates they would oppose releasing, and why.

Among Parker’s order:

--Each incarcerated person is to be provided, free, an individual supply of liquid hand soap and paper towels sufficient for regular hand washing and drying daily.

--Provide a supply of disinfectant hand wipes or disinfectant products effective against the COVID-19 virus for doing cleanup.

--Provide no-cost access to hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol where permissible based on security restrictions.

--Provide access to showers and clean laundry, including clean personal towels on a regular basis but a minimum of weekly.

--To the fullest extent possible, ensure that all jail staff wear protective equipment, including masks and gloves, when in contact with inmates or when touching surfaces in cells or common areas.

--Ensure all jail staff wash their hands with soap and water or use sanitizer before or after touching any person or surfaces in cells or common areas. Consider allowing staff to carry individual-sized bottles while on duty.

--Establish protocol for inmates to self-report COVID-19 symptoms, including temperature monitoring

--Conduct immediate testing for those displaying known symptoms

--Provide spacing of six feet or more between people incarcerated, to the maximum extent possible, to accomplish social distancing.

--Offer adequate medical care and proper quarantine, in a non-punitive setting, for anyone with COVID-19 symptoms or exposure.

--Respond to all COVID-19 emergencies within one hour.

--Provide disinfecting supplies, at no cost, to inmates so they can clean up areas and property after use.

--Cease any punitive transfers or threats of transfer to jail areas with higher infection rate.

Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe said the suit's allegations are untrue and that inmates receive the best of care in the jail. He said it is impossible to practice social distancing of six feet “in any correctional facility.”

"After reading the TRO, everything the judge issued we have already done and been doing well prior to the lawsuit," said McCabe. "We will be talking with her on Monday about all of them.

"We aren't providing hand sanitizer because a few weeks ago we found inmates in the kitchen emptying the bottles and drinking it," he said. "They were tested and found to be intoxicated. If we put that out, there will be a lot of drunk inmates staggering around the jail."

“We have a capacity of 1,508 and had 742 inmates today,” said McCabe. “We have reduced our population in recent weeks by about 600 inmates who either were considered low risk or made bond.

“Everyone in law enforcement and in the courts are doing whatever they can to keep the jail populations low. We used to have 65 people a day come in here. Now it's about 10.”

McCabe said any prisoner who exhibits signs of COVID-19 is screened and tested. If found to be positive, they are removed to another part of the jail and quarantined in an area with other COVID-positive inmates. No one has had to be hospitalized, he said.

“We’ve had 36 positive inmates and five have been released because they finished their sentences,” he said.

McCabe declined to say how many corrections officers or civilian officers have been found to be positive for coronavirus during the pandemic. He said every prisoner is provided with a mask and all officers wear masks and gloves when dealing with prisoners.

Prisoners are never moved around as punishment, McCabe said.

He said reports of a prisoner being denied soap for a week and another prisoner claiming he was told to stop talking if he was short of breath “are lies.”

"I don't know how we can undo things that never happened," he said.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

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