Judge orders Miami jail to enforce social distancing, give inmates soap

The judge also ordered Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation to explain what steps are being taken to protect already sick inmates from COVID-19

By David Ovalle
Miami Herald

MIAMI — A federal judge has ordered the Miami-Dade jail system to provide soap and cleaning supplies to those behind bars, ensure social distancing and explain what steps are being taken to protect already sick inmates from the coronavirus.

The ruling was handed down Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by a group of “medically vulnerable” inmates at the MetroWest Detention Center, a county jail described by inmates as a “petri dish for the coronavirus.”

The lawsuit had asked for the immediate release of seven inmates suffering from a variety of medical issues. U.S. Judge Kathleen Williams didn’t go that far.

Instead, she gave Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation until Thursday to explain, in writing, what measures are being taken to ensure the health of all inmates who suffer serious ailments including heart and lung disease, hypertension and compromised immune systems.

Also, she ordered that jailers “provide adequate spacing of six feet or more” between inmates to the “maximum extent possible” at the jail housing more than 1,800 inmates. The judge also ordered that each inmate get an “individual supply of soap, preferably liquid as recommended by the CDC,” as well as paper towels, cleaning supplies and toilet paper.

Authorities across the country have been pushing people to keep away from crowds and frequently wash their hands to avoid spreading the highly contagious virus, which causes a disease that has killed thousands in the United States and largely shut down the nation’s economy.

Williams also ordered that Miami-Dade jail officers frequently wash their hands, wear masks and gloves when interacting with others — and change gloves before each time they must interact with an inmate.

Across South Florida, authorities have struggled with how to shield inmates — and the corrections officers who guard them in cramped jail and prison facilities — from COVID-19. So far, 15 corrections employees have tested positive for the virus. No inmates have tested positive, but only two have been tested.

The corrections department has said that it has already implemented many of those guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Friday, two days before the suit was filed, the department announced that all officers and inmates must wear masks.

In a statement on Tuesday, the county said the lawsuit ignored “proactive steps already implemented” by corrections.

“As a result, the temporary restraining order entered today largely reiterates the steps already in place across the MDCR system,” the statement said.

As with first responders across the nation, Miami-Dade jail officers have struggled to obtain enough masks, gloves and other equipment that might help protect them from the virus. Officers have even resorted to making their own masks.

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.


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