Lawsuit: Inmates claim Calif. county jail failed to provide masks

Attorneys want all inmates and staff tested, medically vulnerable inmates released, staff to wear PPE and people exposed to COVID-19 quarantined


By Robert Rodriguez
The Fresno Bee

TULARE COUNTY, Calif. — Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux is being sued by a group of jail inmates for allegedly failing to provide basic safeguards, including face masks, to protect against COVID-19.

The class-action complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Fresno by the ACLU Foundation of Northern California and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, seeks to force the sheriff to take immediate action to help prevent the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus in the jail.

Among the actions the attorneys are demanding: testing of all inmates and staff; releasing low-flight-risk inmates who are medically vulnerable; requiring staff to wear personal protection equipment and quarantining people exposed to COVID-19.

Lawyers representing the four inmates, Charles Criswell, Levi Johnson, Samuel Camposeco and Adam Ibarraa, allege Boudreaux has refused to protect the inmates.

“His explicit policy forbids incarcerated people from wearing masks while in their housing units — even those with underlying medical conditions who are especially vulnerable to death and serious injury from COVID-19,” the lawsuit states.

Even kitchen workers have been refused the use of masks while they work. When the food workers pass out meal trays, they come in close contact to the food and dishware. “One individual asked a deputy for a grievance form to report this issue. The deputy told him that the issue was not grievable and refused to give him a form,” according to the lawsuit.

Also named as a plaintiff is the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, whose president is Eric Schweitzer, a Fresno defense attorney.

“As realized by everyone from the Governor to the average citizen on the street, COVID-19 is an indiscriminate enemy that strikes without concern for societal status. If you live in a jail or prison cell, a mansion or a corrugated tin shack, the basic protections against new infections must be made available with the least possible delay,” said Schweitzer. “Excuses by jail administrators ignore reality. No amount of bars and barbed wire will contain this killer. It must be stopped by implementing the protections and protocols that this lawsuit demands. The sooner the better.”

Sheriff responds

In a statement issued Thursday, Boudreaux said his office works very closely with the county’s chief public health officer and the Health and Human Services Department. It also reviews recommendations by the CDC on a regular basis.

“It is unrealistic to believe that we can completely control the spread of COVID-19 in our Detention Facilities. However, we are doing everything that we can with the information and tools available to us to keep our inmates safe and healthy,” the sheriff said.

The lawsuit points out that as the pandemic has spread, jails and prisons have been among the hardest-hit.

“Across the United States, the number of known infections among people incarcerated in state prisons and correctional officers has surged by 45 percent since July 1,” according to the lawsuit.

Tulare County jail infections

On June 26, 2020, Boudreaux reported on the office’s Facebook page that 11 inmates had tested positive, out of “more than 200 total COVID-19 tests in the Tulare County jail facilities.” One month later, the sheriff reported 22 inmates tested positive for COVID-19.

Among the deputies, 37 have been tested and five tested positive for the virus.

Boudreaux said he considers his approach to preventing the spread of infections to be effective.

“We are very fortunate in the fact that we’ve only had 22 inmates in our jails that have tested positive for COVID-19. Every one of those inmates has now recovered. I believe those numbers and the efficacy of our safety protocols speak for themselves in regards to the job we’re doing at preventing the spread of COVID-19 in our facilities,” he said.

The plaintiffs have also accused the sheriff of ignoring the advice of court officials. On July 1, Judge Brett R. Alldredge, presiding judge of the Tulare County Superior Court, and Stephanie Cameron, court executive officer, wrote a letter requesting the county “immediately implement testing of all inmates in the county jail facilities and entry temperature checks for all shared county courthouse buildings open to the public.”

“Defendant has flatly refused to implement even these simple procedures,” according to the lawsuit.

Those who have spoken out against the sheriff’s handling of the pandemic have faced retribution, the lawsuit states.

Inmates have been aggressively questioned about their attorney visits by armed deputies, despite a “no firearm” policy in the jails, according to the lawsuit.

“By threat, intimidation, and retaliation, Defendant has actively interfered with the constitutional right of Plaintiffs and the class they represent — all to avoid revealing his own unconstitutional activities,” the lawsuit states.

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©2020 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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