Oakland County, MI – Civil rights and racial justice groups won a major victory today, ordering the release of medically vulnerable people from the Oakland County Jail in Michigan. Federal Court Judge Linda V. Parker granted a preliminary injunction which orders medically vulnerable people to be released from the jail because Oakland County cannot safely protect them from the grave risk of serious harm posed by COVID-19. County officials are risking the lives of everyone inside and the community at large because of their failure to respond adequately to the threat of COVID-19. This systemic violation of constitutional rights led to litigation in April filed by Advancement Project National Office, ACLU-Michigan, Civil Rights Corp, LaRene & Kriger P.L.C. and the Law Firm of Pitt, McGehee, Palmer and Rivers.
“In the midst of this unprecedented and deadly pandemic, people currently incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails are among the most vulnerable and powerless in our society and cannot adequately protect themselves from the lethal risk of COVID-19, without the intervention of federal and state court judges,” said Krithika Santhanam, Justice Project Staff Attorney for Advancement Project National Office. “Judge Parker’s order granting the release of medically vulnerable people currently incarcerated at the Oakland County Jail serves as a model for the rest of the country and provides the type of critical relief that comports with the law, justice, and basic standards of human decency during this harrowing time in our country’s history”
Judge Parker’s opinion quoted Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor stating, “I caution that in these unprecedented circumstances, where an inmate faces an imminent risk of harm that the grievance process cannot or does not answer, the PLRA’s [Prison Litigation Reform Act] textual exception could open the courthouse doors where they would otherwise stay closed.”
Oakland County Jail has already recorded more than 40 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Those held inside the jail lack consistent access to soap and sanitizer, and are unable to practice social distancing, according to the original suit. In response, Judge Parker’s preliminary injunction orders the jail to provide these safety measures for the next 45 days.
“Because of the court’s decision today, medically vulnerable people in the Oakland County Jail will no longer live with the unconscionable fear that they will contract COVID-19 in the jail and, as a result, possibly die isolated from family and friends. Medically vulnerable people should not be held in crowded cages in the midst of a global pandemic,” said Alex Twinem Attorney for the Civil Rights Corp.
Based on the CDC’s guidelines, people over age 60 or those suffering from hypertension, diabetes, liver disease, and respiratory ailments are considered medically vulnerable and at a higher risk of either contracting COVID-19 or the inability to recover from the disease will be eligible for court ordered release. Once removed from Oakland County Jail, community members being held pretrial who could not afford bail will go home to await trial. For those already convicted, remaining sentences will be served on what the state of Michigan calls a tether, but what our clients know as an ankle shackle.
“We are thrilled that the court has ordered that medically vulnerable people must be released from the Oakland County Jail,” said ACLU of Michigan Senior Staff Attorney Phil Mayor. “This is a victory for our clients and shows the unique and serious risk COVID-19 presents to people inside Michigan’s jails, especially those whose age or medical conditions exposes them to additional danger. A jail sentence should never be a potential death sentence, yet this is the risk that faces those held in the jail. Releasing medically vulnerable people will save lives. We ask sheriffs and jail and prison administrations across the state to use this court order as a guide to similarly recognize the mortal danger faced by incarcerated people every day. It should not require litigation to convince officials to take every possible measure to save lives and protect peoples’ right to due process.”
“Judge Parker’s thoughtful and compassionate decision brings to light the unique needs of medically vulnerable inmates in our country and the inadequacy of the Oakland County Jail’s policies to protect them from being infected with this serious and deadly virus,” said Cary S. McGehee of Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers P.C. “Her decision righteously recognizes that failing to act to release the medically vulnerable is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.”
Michigan Liberation, a local grassroots organization, has been advocating for the families of incarcerated people inside the county jail alongside the national civil rights and racial justice groups. Family members are fearful that their loved ones’ time in the jail will become death sentences.
“This is a decision based on morals, treating people as human beings and not keeping them in conditions that can harm their lives,” said Nicholas Buckingham, Campaign Director for Michigan Liberation. “We are thankful for this win and hope that other counties throughout Michigan will follow the same approach.”
“Since the pandemic began, Michigan Liberation team members have talked with dozens of individuals incarcerated in Oakland County Jail and their families,” said Julia Galliker, Oakland City Director for Michigan Liberation. “We were horrified by the callous treatment of inmates. We heard repeated stories about dirty and unsafe conditions and abusive staff behavior. Through our ongoing legal partnerships we will continue to protect incarcerated people from mortal danger.”
“We live in a country that cages 2.3 million human beings, with more than 600,000 in local jails on any given day. While mass incarceration invalidates any possible belief in the reality of a justice system in general, it is heartening to see this first of its kind victory from a federal court ordering the release of medically vulnerable people jailed during a global pandemic,” Thomas B. Harvey, Justice Project Program Director for Advancement Project National Office. “It’s a huge win for the people inside, for our organizing partners at Michigan Liberation, and for the rest of the advocates across the country fighting to win the release of our nation’s most vulnerable people during the COVID-19 crisis.”
In efforts to heavily pressure local and state governments to release people immediately, Advancement Project National Office and Michigan Liberation have created advocacy tools as a call to action for #FreeAndSafe communities. Advancement Project National Office has filed similar suits in St. Louis, Miami, Wayne County, Michigan, and expects to file in East Baton Rouge this month.
Advancement Project National Office, founded in 1999, is a next generation, multi-racial civil rights organization with a mission to fulfill America’s promise of a caring, inclusive and just democracy.
Michigan Liberation is a statewide network of people and organizations organizing to end the criminalization of Black families and communities of color in Michigan.
ACLU of Michigan, founded in1959, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public interest organization dedicated to the defense and expansion of civil liberties and civil rights in Michigan.
Pitt McGehee Palmer & Rivers P.C. is one of the state’s largest and most accomplished plaintiff civil rights and employment law firms specializing in representing individuals whose civil rights have been violated through legal action and social engineering.
LaRene & Kriger P.L.C. is a pre-eminent criminal defense firm in Detroit with a long history of both trial and appellate work in notable and challenging cases.
Civil Rights Corps (CRC) is a nonprofit organization working to end the criminalization of poverty through high impact, innovative, anti-racist civil rights litigation and advocacy.