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ACLU Lawsuit Alleges Tulare County Jail’s Social Distancing Policy Is Unconstitutional

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has filed a new complaint against the Tulare County Jail for its living conditions during the pandemic, alleging that the jail is failing to adequately test for COVID-19 and that its social distancing policy violates inmates’ constitutional rights. Filed last Thursday in federal court, the supplemental complaint is the latest development in a lawsuit originally brought against the jail last summer.

The initial complaint from July alleged that the jail didn’t provide masks to incarcerated people for months into the pandemic, and that new visitation policies ostensibly prevented inmates from meeting with attorneys. In an interview with FM89 at the time, Sheriff Mike Boudreaux acknowledged that inmates were not given masks until July, but denied that the jail’s legal visitation policy was unnecessarily restrictive. 

The jail also did not have a formal social distancing policy until a federal judge issued a restraining order in September, requiring the sheriff’s office to create or update its COVID-19 prevention and protection measures. The resulting social distancing policy is now one of the subjects of the supplemental complaint. 

According to the guidelines, the jail permits inmates in COVID-19 isolation or quarantine no more than 30 minutes a day for all programs and privileges, including exercise, showering, commissary, and phone calls. The lawsuit, which alleges this “solitary-like lockdown” is being enforced on all of the jail’s detainees, argues that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and violates their rights to due process. 

“To be locked in a cell is punishment enough, but the hours they were keeping us in there was unreasonable,” says lead plaintiff Charles Criswell, who was recently released from the jail after serving 16 months for a stolen vehicle.

“Rather than create a social distancing policy, [the sheriff] just locked everyone down in their cells all the time,” says Dylan Verner-Crist, a legal policy investigator with the ACLU of Northern California. He argues that a more effective policy would allow more men out of their cells at one time while entrusting them to remain at least six feet away from others. 

The lawsuit also claims that by not conducting widespread surveillance testing, the jail is not adequately screening its incarcerated population, which the suit argues is especially important in light of a December surge in cases. “We don’t know to what degree it’s spread, we don’t know if another outbreak is underway, there’s just no way of knowing without any kind of systematic testing,” says ACLU of Northern California attorney Annie Decker.

In a statement, a Tulare County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson called the allegations false and said, “Sheriff Boudreaux welcomes the opportunity to provide all evidence to support the highest level of care and concern for the people who find themselves in Tulare County Detention Facilities.”

According to the sheriff’s office, there are currently no active cases of the virus in the jail, and none of those who have tested positive have ever needed to be treated in an outside hospital.

 

Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.