Court: Miami jail can't be forced to give inmates masks, soap and cleaning supplies

The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals said a judge overstepped when she ruled Metro West Detention Center inmates get the supplies and be tested for COVID-19

By David Ovalle
Miami Herald

MIAMI — A federal appeals court has blocked, for now, a judge’s order forcing Miami-Dade County to give masks, soap and cleaning supplies to inmates at a jail wracked by the novel coronavirus.

The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday said that Miami District Court Judge Kathleen Williams overstepped the law when she ruled that inmates at the Metro West Detention Center must get the supplies — and also be tested for COVID-19, as well as people who have been in contact with them.

“To avoid contempt, then, [the jails] must allocate limited testing resources to Metro West at the expense of other county facilities,” the appellate judges ruled.

“All the while, the district court has tasked itself with overseeing the steps the defendants are taking to ‘ensure additional social distancing safeguards,’ even though it acknowledges that social distancing is ‘impossible’ at the current inmate population level. In short, the district court assumed the role of ‘super-warden.’ ”

Tuesday’s decision adds another twist in the federal lawsuit filed by a group of inmates at Metro West over conditions at the jail. Tuesday’s ruling stays Williams’ order but allows litigation between the parties to continue.

Metro West is where 163 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. In all three Miami jails, about 340 inmates have tested positive in the cramped quarters where social distancing is challenging.

The county has already tested more than 700 inmates, and has been giving them masks and cleaning supplies, along with corrections officers. The corrections system has also halted visitations and set rules for quarantining new inmates.

An inmate diagnosed with COVID-19, Charles Hobbs, died last weekend. The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office is awaiting more test results before declaring a cause of death.

As part of the lawsuit Williams last week declined to release any of the inmates who sued but forced the county to give the supplies, conduct testing and also issue frequent reports on the testing and measures being taken to safeguard the health of those behind bars.

In a 2-1 decision, judges said Williams was wrong.

“In large measure, the injunction transfers the power to administer the Metro West facility in the midst of the pandemic from public officials to the district court,” Judges William Branch and Elizabeth Pryor wrote. “The injunction hamstrings [corrections] officials with years of experience running correctional facilities, and the elected officials they report to, from acting with dispatch to respond to this unprecedented pandemic.”

Judge Charles Wilson dissented, saying he failed “to see an abuse of discretion” in Judge Williams’ ruling.

In state and federal prisons and jails across Florida and the United States, authorities have struggled to contain the outbreak among inmates while trying to balance their release and the safety of the public.

The lawsuit was filed by civil rights group the Dream Defenders, along with the Advancement Project National OfficeCommunity Justice Project and Civil Rights Corps and GST LLP.


©2020 Miami Herald

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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