Russell Leaks had more reasons to be worried about the coronavirus than most people.
The 66-year-old Tennessee cook suffers from chronic liver disease, high blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat and the toll of a heart attack. And he was in jail, a place where the virus spreads easily.
Leaks got COVID-19 in late November while awaiting final court action on a parole violation charge. The disease left him so short of breath he could barely talk on the phone with relatives. After receiving what he characterized as minimal medical treatment at the jail, he finally recovered in early January.
“I felt degraded. I felt like an animal,” Leaks said of his health ordeal. “I felt like I was put there to die.”
Leaks is among incarcerated people across the country who have fought the danger of COVID-19 by joining their names and experiences with lawsuits over health conditions in jails and prisons. Alleging that their treatment violated the U.S. Constitution, they have sued correctional and detention facilities and government officials.
Dozens of cases were filed by American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, local attorneys, and large law firms that took them on for free. The suits asked courts to reduce jail and prison populations, eliminate overcrowding that makes social distancing practically impossible, or take steps to protect older and medically at-risk detainees, like Leaks. One lawsuit asked a court to prioritize jail inmates for COVID-19 vaccines.
“We just had a sense of, let’s try to litigate this disaster, if we can, and help as many people as possible,” said Andrea Woods, an ACLU attorney who worked on the Tennessee case that includes Leaks.
As of last week, 27% of prisoners nationwide had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to data gathered by The Marshall Project and the Associated Press. However, the data did not include jails, and 31 states did not have current vaccine data.
Handful of lawsuits resulted in stronger protections for inmates
Many of the lawsuits failed. But a few succeeded, helping thousands of incarcerated people — and the corrections officers and administrators who oversee them — avoid getting sick or dying from COVID-19.
In Oregon, a federal lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of the state’s decision to prioritize COVID-19 vaccinations for people who live or work in congregate care facilities like nursing homes, as well as people who work in jails or prisons — but not the incarcerated.
The case, filed by lawyers from the Oregon Justice Resource Center and other civil rights attorneys, alleged violations of prisoners’ Eighth Amendment right to be protected from cruel or unusual punishment.
“Our constitutional rights are not suspended during a crisis,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman wrote in granting a preliminary injunction. “On the contrary, during difficult times we must remain the most vigilant to protect the constitutional rights of the powerless. Even when faced with limited resources, the state must fulfill its duty of protecting those in its custody.”
Beckerman’s ruling, filed on Feb. 2, ordered the state to offer COVID-19 vaccines to inmates in Oregon state prisons immediately. The state did not appeal the ruling.
On March 10, the state Department of Corrections said it had offered the vaccine to all 13,200 people in its custody. In all, 9,156 detainees, or 69% of the population, had received at least one vaccine shot by then, the department said. Oregon was among the states that did not have the most recent vaccine data available for the survey by The Marshall Project and the Associated Press.
In Colorado’s Weld County, officials agreed to a settlement that requires them to identify medically vulnerable inmates when they are booked into the county jail and to monitor them for COVID-19 symptoms. The agreement requires the jail to provide masks to inmates and isolate those who test positive for the disease.
In North Carolina, officials agreed to settle a lawsuit by the NAACP and other civil rights groups by releasing an estimated 3,500 inmates from state prisons. The agreement marked one of the largest U.S. prison releases due to a COVID-19 lawsuit.
Driving the legal challenges was the danger COVID-19 poses to incarcerated people. Prisons, jails and detention facilities were early hotspots for the disease. People held there “have virtually no way to protect themselves,” said Woods, the ACLU attorney on the Tennessee lawsuit.