Along with our partners Root & Rebound, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center and Wyche, P.A., we filed a lawsuit today in the United States District Court challenging Spartanburg County’s failure to protect incarcerated people from risks associated with a COVID-19 outbreak in custodial settings. Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc. (P&A) also joined the lawsuit as a plaintiff on behalf of incarcerated people with disabilities. Defendants named in the suit are Sheriff Chuck Wright and Jail Administrator Allen Freeman. 

The suit seeks immediate protections for people incarcerated in the Spartanburg County Detention Center. Protections include policy and procedural changes to allow all incarcerated people and staff free, unlimited access to soap, disinfecting cleaners, and personal protective equipment and to require and enforce social distancing of six feet. Additionally, the suit seeks immediate relief for incarcerated people who are at particular risk of serious harm or death from COVID-19, including those who are over 55, are pregnant, or have defined underlying medical conditions. This action follows a series of efforts 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.

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 is rapidly spreading throughout correctional settings across the country, public health experts have recommended the rapid release from custody of those who are most vulnerable. 

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. 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. We are asking the courts to prevent the Spartanburg County Detention center from becoming the next in a growing line of corrections institutions unnecessarily and gravely endangering people in their care.

Of the ten places in America with the largest COVID-19 outbreaks, seven are correctional institutions. 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. A new epidemiological model shows 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.