Class-action suit targets Wayne County, sheriff for jail conditions

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Seven Wayne County Jail inmates filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Wayne County, Sheriff Benny Napoleon and others in the Sheriff's Office, seeking mass releases from Michigan's largest county jail due to the coronavirus outbreak.

"Hundreds of individuals caged inside the Wayne County Jail facilities — overwhelmingly black, poor, and medically vulnerable — are prohibited from meaningfully protecting themselves against this global pandemic," reads a portion of the 71-page lawsuit, which was filed by the inmates via several civil rights and racial justice groups. "As COVID19 continues to gain a powerful foothold in the Wayne County Jail, incarcerated people are at significant risk of becoming infected and ultimately dying."

On March 10, when the coronavirus officially reached Michigan, the Wayne County Jail had a population of 1,381. As of Monday it had fallen by 550, to 830. There are more people right now on tether supervision — 869 — than inside its three jail facilities.

More:Jail populations plunge in Metro Detroit as coronavirus spreads

But the lawsuit concerns the inmates left behind in a jail system, where 113 inmates and 200 sheriff's department staffers are confirmed to have contracted the virus and four of have died. Along with the two corrections officers who died, Deadline Detroit reported in April that the jail's medical director and an emergency room doctor died after contracting the virus.

"The outbreak within the jail poses a grave risk of harm and death that is ongoing," the lawsuit reads. 

"(I)ndividuals locked inside this jail are engaged in a fight for recognition of their humanity and for their very survival during this perilous and extraordinary time," the lawsuit continues.

In addition to Napoleon, the suit names Undersheriff Daniel Pfannes, Chief of Jails and courts Robert Dunlap, and Deputy Chief of Jails James Davis, . 

The suit alleges that "the very steps required for all of those living outside of a jail—regular handwashing, adequately cleaning their surroundings, access to testing, prompt medical attention, and wearing protective gear—have been made impossible for those confined in the jail by the very officials responsible for their well-being."

Napoleon declined to comment as the litigation is pending.

In the past, Sheriff's Office leadership has maintained that jail facilities have been deep-cleaned since the start of the outbreak and that inmates are offered regular access to soap.

But jail inmates, the lawsuit argues, are denied access to the most powerful tool of all in fighting the virus: the chance to keep a physical distance of 6 feet between themselves and others. The inability of inmates to maintain social distancing make the jail environment dangerous, the suit argues.

"Public health experts agree that ... protective measures are insufficient to contain the virus if social distancing cannot be achieved," the suit reads.

Jails are by design a congregant environment, even as their populations thin across the state. As one Michigan sheriff has told The News previously, "jails are not designed for mass quarantine."

More:Metro Detroit jails quarantine newcomers, give protective gear to staff

"Contrary to public claims," the suit says, "the people detained inside have limited and, at times no access to soap, cleaning supplies, or personal protective equipment, Kleenex, and paper towels; they sparingly receive clean clothing, linens, and towels; in many cases, they sleep and eat within a couple of feet and, at times, inches of one another; they must wait days to receive medical attention; and, frequently, requests for medical attention are dismissed or punished."

The suit seeks a ruling "requiring defendants to take basic and necessary steps to protect the health and welfare of people held inside of the jail."

It also seeks "a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction, and permanent injunction, and/or writ of habeas corpus requiring defendants to immediately release all medically vulnerable petitioners/plaintiffs ...or transfer them to home confinement."

Jail officials, working alongside Timothy Kenny, chief judge of Wayne Circuit Court; Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy; and the attorneys representing Wayne County Jail inmates in a local class-action lawsuit on jail conditions dating back to 1971, have been working to determine which inmates could be released from jail without putting the community at risk.

That effort, along with the work of defense attorneys to seek bond adjustments for clients in the jail, and fewer arrests being made and fewer court matters being heard, is why the jail population has fallen so much in the past two months.

For the inmates who will remain jailed, the suit seeks improved conditions. Among the terms it seeks are regular access to soap and hand sanitizer, "adequate spacing" of at least six feet between people, daily temperature checks for inmates, immediate testing for anyone with symptoms, and the waiving of co-pays required for doctor visits.

Seven plaintiffs, all male, are named in the lawsuit:

  • Charles Russell, 59, "suffers from stage 3 prostate cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and an umbilical hernia. Since being taken into custody on March 20, 2020, Mr. Russell has been unable to attend any radiation treatment sessions, which he must receive five times per week to prevent his cancer from spreading." Russell was sentenced to 365 days at the jail last August on auto theft charges.
  • Christopher Hubbard, 26, has diabetes and asthma, and is waiting for his day in court on multiple felony charges related to theft.
  • Harry White, 36, "suffers from a heart murmur and localized paralysis in his feet and hands and chronic pain from a bullet located on his spine. He has had to relearn to walk and is unable to stand for long periods of time." White is serving a 12-month sentence for operating while intoxicated, causing death, that started in late-February.
  • Carl Smelley Jr., 38, has "sickle cell disease, hypertension, and diabetes." Smelley has been charged in the death of a fellow Wayne County Jail inmate, Antonio James, during an Oct. 2019 fight at the jail's "division two" facility. Smelley was given a 12-month sentence on a gun charge in February, and awaits his day in court for the homicide charge.
  • CalDerone Pearson, 30, is a father of five who is two months into a nine-month sentence on drug charges
  • Shane Carline, 33, is jailed "because he cannot afford to pay his bond," the suit says
  • Courtney White, 54, "suffers from high blood pressure and high cholesterol." White is five months into a six-month sentence on drug charges.

The suit was brought on their behalf by a coalition of attorneys and organizations, including the Detroit Justice Center, Larene and Kriger PLC of Detroit, the Advancement Project's national office in Washington, D.C., along with the Civil Rights Corps and Venable LLP, both of Washington, D.C. 

The Advancement Project filed a similar lawsuit against the Oakland County Jail in federal court last month. The court granted a temporary restraining order 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.

Oakland County Undersheriff Mike McCabe, though, told The Detroit News that the jail had already implemented the changes the lawsuit requested, before it was filed. 

As for the hand sanitizer, that part of the order has since been reversed, McCabe said.

The jail does not grant inmates access to hand sanitizer due to an incident in the kitchen about three months ago, where seven inmates got access to it and were found intoxicated, via preliminary breath tests, after consuming it. One had to be hospitalized, McCabe said.

jdickson@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @downi75