NEW YORK – Today the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a habeas petition to secure release for four petitioners and a class of medically vulnerable people incarcerated at the Sullivan County Jail who face a significant risk of severe illness or death from the coronavirus. The Sullivan County Jail is currently subject to a severe outbreak of the novel coronavirus that is spreading unabated.
“For more than two months, alarms have been raised about the unique dangers the coronavirus poses for people in jails and prisons, and yet no precautions have been taken for medically vulnerable people in the Sullivan County jail,” said Phil Desgranges, senior staff attorney at the NYCLU. “Given Sullivan County’s refusal to act and the rapid spread of coronavirus among nearly half the jail population, release is the only way to prevent severe illness or death for vulnerable people incarcerated in Sullivan County.”
All four named petitioners are in jail and have pre-existing conditions that leave them especially at-risk for severe complications from the virus. The lawsuit also seeks release for a broader putative class of high-risk people with medical conditions outlined by the CDC and New York State Department of Health.
To date, the jail has taken few measures to mitigate the spread of the virus. Beginning early in the pandemic, officials suspended visits from friends and family, limited visits from counsel, and handed out masks without requiring anyone to wear them. In the ensuing weeks, corrections staff often went without wearing masks and lax staffing and housing policies were left in place.
On May 11 the jail reported its first positive case among the incarcerated population, believed to have been brought in from correctional staff. Just a week later the virus had spread to 33 people out of the jail’s population of 73 people.
No policies have been implemented to identify and protect vulnerable people in the jail from illness or death from COVID-19, and guards have been allowed to rotate between guarding COVID-negative and COVID-positive people.
“The conduct of Sullivan County correctional staff reflect a disturbing disregard for the well-being of people in the jail,” said Desgranges. “The lack of protective measures taken specifically for high-risk individuals in the jail show a willful failure to protect those most vulnerable to dying from coronavirus. It’s hard to imagine an environment more conducive to transmitting or dying from the virus than the one Sullivan County officials created and continue to allow in the jail.”
The 110-year-old Sullivan County jail is the oldest jail in the state. Several floors in the facility have been condemned and deemed uninhabitable by the Department of Corrections, and there are reports of black mold in the facility. Poor ventilation in the facility has likely contributed to the spread of illness.
The county constructed a new jail last year that is prepared to house people, but no one has been transferred. The medical services at the current jail have also been inadequate for the crisis. There are no medical staff available past 10 pm, and recently someone who experienced an asthma attack at night had to wait until the morning for help.
Sullivan County has the highest positive test rate and the most new cases per capita in the state.
NYCLU attorneys on the case include Philip Desgranges, Antony Gemmell, Grace Li and Molly Biklen.
You can find materials on the case here: https://www.nyclu.org/en/cases/pace-v-schiff