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Inmates sue for soap and paper towels as coronavirus spreads in jails

Posted March 31, 2020 4:43 p.m. EDT

— Prisoners are running out of soap and cleaning solution, then wiping their hands on their uniforms because paper towels aren't available. Detainees are using the same towels they use to clean jail cells to bathe and dry their hands. And there's no hand sanitizer allowed for prisoners.

That's the grim situation described in a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and DC public defender's service brought on behalf of four detainees and prisoners in Washington, DC's city jail on Monday.

The lawsuit landed on a day that at least one other group of prisoners, in a Texas state prison, asked a judge to mandate they have more soap and cleaning supplies, marking how inmates have started to take a more aggressive and coordinated approach in court to how their jails are being run as they fear the spread of the coronavirus.

The court filings give a startling portrait of the alleged lack of sanitary supplies in some jails and highlight how difficult it is for detention facilities to stop the virus from spreading.

"Even the best run, most humane, most medically up to date jail is a giant petri dish. You have lots and lots of people living in close quarters. Social distancing is virtually impossible," said Greg Lipper, a DC-based defense attorney who has clients in the jail. "Most jails, especially city jails, have a lot of people going in and out. DC is no different."

RELATED: America's largest single site jail is home to a new coronavirus cluster

The DC and Texas lawsuits, both in federal court but against state and local correctional systems, have taken a different tactic compared to many other court requests since the pandemic hit the US.

In other cases, inmates have asked to be released from prison to avoid catching Covid-19, and judges have largely denied these efforts. In a handful of local communities and in New York City, where more than 160 inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, city leadership decided to release nonviolent and misdemeanor offenders, going around the courts entirely.

Yet several correctional systems haven't taken that drastic action, and the DC and Texas lawsuits show the limitations within prisons for preventing illness -- and how inmates fear how the virus could spread.

The DC jail now has six confirmed coronavirus cases, according to a spokesperson. Though fewer people are being locked up now, authorities in DC haven't made the same decision as other cities to release large groups of prisoners. And former inmates who've broken their parole are still being temporarily detained in the DC jail, bringing people in and out of the jail, according to defense attorneys.

Olinda Moyd, a recently retired head of the DC public defender's parole section, said a client of hers was released last week after being arrested in January for missing an appointment with his parole officer. The jail sent him home to Maryland with a Metro ticket.

"The men who are sitting in the jail are terrified. They're worried about their families," she said. "Chemicals are dropped off at each of the housing units in the morning. They go around and clean each of the doorknobs on the cells."

The DC inmates' lawsuit this week called the situation inside the jail cruel and unusual punishment.

One inmate could not get a Covid-19 test and was sent back to his housing unit with symptoms of the virus, the complaint said.

"Defendants have not provided additional soap free of charge since the first distribution of the single bar of soap, nor did Defendants inform residents when they will receive more soap," the lawsuit said. "Consequently, some residents have already run out of their single allotted bar, while others are not using the single bar because they do not know when the next bar will come."

"On at least one unit, a closet full of cleaning supplies and clean rags is present, but residents are told they will be punished if they attempt to access or use those supplies to clean the unit, their own cells, or their hands and bodies," the lawsuit added.

The lawsuit alleges the jail is violating its residents' constitutional rights, including protection from cruel and unusual punishment. Ultimately, the lawsuit asks a judge to release prisoners and detainees and provide inmates with hand soap, paper towels, toilet paper, running water, tissues, no-touch trash cans and hand sanitizer. The inmates also seek access to daily showers and clean laundry.

DC's Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying only in a statement that "since the earliest stages of this unprecedented pandemic, we have been planning for the safety and well-being of all vulnerable populations in the District, which includes residents in the custody of the Department of Corrections. As this public health emergency evolves, we will continue working to keep all residents and workers safe and healthy."

Making hand sanitizer but can't have any

In Texas, prison inmates are suing for hand sanitizer, soap and paper towels, alleging that their prison unit hasn't taken enough precautions to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to a new federal lawsuit.

The lawsuit says both the Texas criminal justice system and the community around the Wallace Pack Unit in Grimes County have seen multiple reported cases of the virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recommended that jails make cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer available.

But the lawsuit alleges that Texas state inmates can't get access to hand sanitizer because of state policy that says they can't have it -- even while some inmates have been forced to make it.

The lawsuit also claims the prison hasn't taken enough steps to stop the virus from spreading, such as by reducing inmate interactions.

So far, an inmate and two employees at other facilities in the Texas prison system have tested positive for coronavirus, the lawsuit said.

A spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice declined to comment on the lawsuit's allegations because the state is still reviewing it.

"The health and wellbeing of TDCJ employees and contractors as well as the offenders in our custody is of utmost importance. TDCJ is working in close contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Texas State Health officials," Jeremy Desel said in an email Monday. "As guidance from the CDC and state health officials evolves so do our practices."

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