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Analise Ortiz | 

June 16, 2020

Lawsuit Seeks Release of Medically Vulnerable People

For Immediate Release: June 16, 2020

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Arizona, and law firms Dechert LLP and Stinson, LLP filed a lawsuit today against Sheriff Paul Penzone and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office seeking the release of medically vulnerable people from county jails.

The lawsuit comes as confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus surge in Maricopa County jails. Since May 29, the number of confirmed cases has increased by more than 5,000%. 

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Puente Human Rights Movement and medically vulnerable people currently detained in the Maricopa County Jail System who live with serious medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and lung disease.

"At a moment when Arizona is seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases, it is critical the county takes steps to mitigate the situation unfolding within the Maricopa County Jails, which have also seen an enormous spike of confirmed cases," said Olga Akselrod, senior staff attorney at the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "There is clear evidence that jails act as vectors that dramatically increase the deaths from COVID-19 — both within the jail and in the surrounding community. It is imperative that the county release those most at risk from COVID-19 due to medical vulnerabilities in order to prevent senseless death, allow for social distancing within the jail, and flatten the curve for the whole community."

The lawsuit calls for the release of medically vulnerable people so they can self-quarantine in an appropriate setting. 

"The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has shown its inability to safely house medically vulnerable people," said ACLU of Arizona criminal justice staff attorney Jared Keenan. "Dangerous conditions are allowing the virus to spread rapidly. Yet no one can know the full extent of infections in the jails because testing has been so minimal. We need the court to step in to ensure lives are protected."

"Since the start of this pandemic, Puente Human Rights Movement has been working around the clock to get people at risk of contracting COVID-19 out of our jails. COVID-19 poses a direct and increased risk to the lives of the people we serve," said Jovana Renteria, Co-Executive Director of Puente Human Rights Movement. "Black, Brown, and Indigenous Arizonans are over-represented in our jails and now these jail sentences are becoming potential death sentences. It is state violence that must be stopped."

Plaintiffs are also asking the Sheriff’s Office to update its COVID-19 jail policies to comply with CDC guidelines and that jails take additional measures including universal testing to track, contain, and prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

"Sheriff Penzone and his office have failed to take reasonable measures to protect the defenseless detainees in their custody. Therefore, the defendants are in open violation of the U.S. Constitution and must be forced to remedy the situation, including improving the conditions for everyone inside," said Dechert partner Shari Ross Lahlou.

Stinson partner Larry Wulkan added, "Many of these medically vulnerable detainees are awaiting trial–meaning they are innocent in the eyes of the law–and are only inside because they cannot afford cash bail. Keeping such individuals locked in a COVID tinderbox is wrong, and we seek their immediate release."

This lawsuit is among many efforts the ACLU has recently undertaken to reduce the number of people entering jails and prisons, improve conditions, increase government transparency, and release people from dangerous, even deadly, conditions in prisons, jails and detention facilities during this pandemic.

The filing can be viewed here.

This press release can be viewed here.