We, along with the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, Root & Rebound, Wyche, P.A., and Disability Rights South Carolina (formerly known as Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc.) today announced a settlement with Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright and Jail Administrator Allen Freeman in a federal lawsuit that challenged the failure of the Spartanburg County Detention Center to protect those in its care from COVID-19.
According to the settlement agreement that has been filed, the defendants agree to revise their jail intake, screening, and testing protocols to identify medically vulnerable individuals and ensure the humane treatment of people who have tested positive or been exposed to COVID-19. In addition, under the settlement all incarcerated people will have access to personal protective equipment, including masks and personal sanitation products. The agreement also ensures proper social distancing and housing protocols, including the treatment of people who have tested positive for COVID-19. Under the agreement, jail staff will be encouraged to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and the vaccine will be made available to all people held in the jail. In addition, the defendants have agreed to a series of steps to safely reduce the number of people held at the Spartanburg County Detention Center, including guidance to patrol officers to limit custodial arrests, limit the transfer of people currently held in other jurisdictions or by other agencies, and the development of a process to enable the release of certain categories of people from the Spartanburg County Detention Center. Finally, the defendants agreed to an expedited grievance and monitoring process to better ensure compliance with this settlement.
The vast majority of people incarcerated in South Carolina’s jails are being detained pretrial and have not been convicted of a crime. They are presumed innocent but remain incarcerated simply because of an inability to pay bail.
“People shouldn’t be forced to endure conditions that pose grave and unnecessary risks to their health and their lives simply because they’ve been accused of a crime,” said South Carolina Appleseed Litigation Attorney Adam Protheroe. “People in jails are already more vulnerable than most to COVID-19 because of underlying health conditions or limited access to quality healthcare. We can’t allow people to be sentenced to death before they’ve even been tried.”
Incarcerated people are housed in close quarters, are often in poor health, are unable to engage in social distancing practices recommended by the CDC, and thus are at heightened risk of becoming infected with and dying from COVID-19. Because of this severe threat and evidence that COVID-19 has rapidly spread throughout correctional settings across the country, public health experts have recommended the rapid release from custody of those who are most vulnerable.
“Jails and prisons have become epicenters for deadly COVID-19 outbreaks,” said ACLU of South Carolina Criminal Justice Policy Counsel Shirene Hansotia. “On any given day in South Carolina, the majority of people in jail are there because they cannot afford to pay bail. South Carolina’s two-tiered justice system already disproportionately punishes people who are poor, and during this pandemic, economic hardship could amount to a death sentence. Spartanburg County Detention was among a growing line of corrections institutions unnecessarily and gravely endangering people in their care. We are thankful that people incarcerated at the Spartanburg County Detention will now be better protected against this potentially deadly disease.”
This litigation followed a series of efforts made by the SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center, ACLU of South Carolina, Root & Rebound, and Disability Rights South Carolina (DRSC) to persuade officials to safely reduce the jail population and implement protective procedures in response to dire threats associated with a COVID-19 outbreak in correctional facilities.
“This lawsuit was imperative because ethically and constitutionally, we cannot overlook the humanity and needs of those incarcerated,” said Root & Rebound South Carolina Director Kate Weaver Patterson. “We asked the courts to acknowledge and protect the constitutional rights of some of our most vulnerable, and in so doing, protect those incarcerated and the entire community from the spread of infection. This settlement marks a major step toward that goal.”
“Wyche is grateful for the opportunity to have joined the fight for the protection of the Spartanburg Community by seeking to improve conditions for incarcerated individuals and staff of the Spartanburg Jail,” said Rita Bolt Barker, Member at Wyche. “To preserve public health, we must guard against the spread of COVID-19 among our most vulnerable populations. Particularly as COVID-19 transmissions are again on the rise, we are thankful to finalize this settlement and better protect the health and safety of jail staff and incarcerated people alike.”
“As the Protection and Advocacy organization for South Carolina, we advocate for the human, civil, and legal rights for people with disabilities,” said DRSC Executive Director Beth Franco. “P&As were created to address abuse, neglect, and the denial of the rights of people with disabilities who are in facilities, including our prison and jail system. We want to ensure individuals in facilities are safe in light of COVID 19, and this settlement moves us one step closer to that goal.”
Government models predicting the pandemic’s death toll fail to account for the impact of the virus on incarcerated populations, who will be infected and die at higher rates. An epidemiological model released last year showed that as many as 200,000 people could die from COVID-19 – double the government estimate – without swift, coordinated intervention to reduce prison and jail populations.
The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina Spartanburg Division.
Defendants named in the suit were Sheriff Chuck Wright and Jail Administrator Allen Freeman.
A copy of the Settlement Agreement can be found here.