A proposed class action lawsuit challenges what a group of inmates call an “inadequate response” to the COVID-19 pandemic at Mississippi’s two largest prisons.
Filed against the interim commissioner of Mississippi’s Department of Corrections and the superintendents of Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF) and South Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI), the 38-page lawsuit claims the roughly 6,000 inmates at the two prisons have been needlessly endangered in the midst of a crisis due to the defendants’ failure to implement even “baseline protective measures” against COVID-19. The plaintiffs further argue that the defendants’ failure to protect those with disabilities who are at an increased risk of contracting and sustaining complications from the coronavirus constitutes a violation of both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
The lawsuit stresses that prisons are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 outbreaks, citing incidents in other prison systems as evidence that once the disease begins spreading in a facility, “it is only a matter of time until the outbreak spreads rapidly and hundreds are infected.”
According to the case, an outbreak in Mississippi’s prison systems would be “devastating and uncontrollable” given prisoners live in close quarters without proper sanitizing materials and lack access to adequate medical care. Moreover, the suit alleges that the Mississippi prison system is “notoriously overcrowded, understaffed, and in a state of disrepair,” having previously come under scrutiny by the Department of Justice. Given these conditions, the Mississippi Department of Corrections “is in a particularly difficult position” to handle the “grave and imminent challenges” presented by a potential COVID-19 outbreak, the lawsuit alleges.
According to the suit, the defendants have failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the safety of inmates at CMCF and SMCI, including the nine plaintiffs, most of whom the suit says are living with disabilities that expose them to a heightened health risk.
“Defendants know about and have disregarded the obvious risks to Plaintiffs’ safety,” the complaint scathes.
Because inmates at the two prisons live in “open bay” units that contain 100 or more individuals, social distancing measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are “difficult and often impossible,” the lawsuit alleges. Moreover, due to understaffing at the prisons, up to four housing units may be supervised by only one guard, meaning access to medical intervention for 200 to 400 people may be “temporarily unavailable” at times.
The lawsuit claims that after an individual at SMCI reported symptoms consistent with COVID-19, “it took days” for staff to respond, during which time the man remained in the same unit as 100 others, some of whom later developed similar symptoms.
The risk of the virus spreading is further compounded by the lack of proper cleaning at CMCF and SMCI, the suit says. According to the plaintiffs, prisoners lack access to adequate cleaning and hygiene products such as soap and tissues, and “not even baseline cleaning protocols” have been observed where possible COVID-19 cases have been identified.
The plaintiffs further allege that staff have not properly communicated with prisoners regarding safety protocols and symptoms of COVID-19 as recommended by the CDC.
“There has been little verbal communication regarding symptoms and hygiene, and people have no way of informing themselves about how to best protect themselves,” the complaint alleges, adding that the signage “briefly” posted regarding COVID-19 was written only in English.
The plaintiffs seek to require that the defendants implement steps to reduce overcrowding at the prisons, along with “measures necessary to minimize and manage an outbreak of COVID-19.”
ClassAction.org’s coverage of COVID-19 litigation can be found here and over on our Newswire.