Inmates file class-action lawsuit over handling of COVID-19 at downtown jail
Inmates at the Metropolitan Correctional Center claim the downtown federal high-rise jail’s “haphazard and insufficient” measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic led to two major outbreaks, endangering inmates and staff.
Inmates at the Metropolitan Correctional Center claim the downtown federal high-rise jail’s “haphazard and insufficient” measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic led to two major outbreaks, endangering people in custody and staff.
Some of those failed measures include a lack of cleaning supplies and proper social distancing as well as a “poorly implemented and incomplete” isolation and quarantine process, according to a proposed class-action lawsuit filed Friday in federal court in Chicago. Officials also allegedly turned “a blind eye” to staff who didn’t wear masks and ignored some people in custody who asked for tests.
The plaintiffs, Ricky Price and Kevin Conway, both inmates at the MCC on West Van Buren, allege that the Federal Bureau of Prisons and MCC officials have “failed not once, but twice, to protect the people in their custody” from the pandemic.
As a result, more than 200 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at the facility, according to the Bureau of Prisons’ website, though the lawsuit suggests “the real infection rate was certainly higher” than that.
“It is hard to define what MCC officials are doing as a strategy for confronting COVID,” Camille Bennett, director of the Prison Reform Project at the ACLU of Illinois and an attorney for the inmates, said. “They failed in the spring and they have not learned a single lesson. There must be a specific, science-based plan to protect those detained at the MCC.”
Despite two MCC staff members testing positive for the virus in late March, the facility carried on “business as usual” in many ways, the lawsuit said. Inmates still worked their jobs throughout the building, including in the kitchen, though they were not provided masks, and many staff didn’t wear masks or gloves, the lawsuit said.
The MCC mostly relied on residents self-reporting their symptoms, the lawsuit said. However, many allegedly were deterred from reporting their symptoms because they didn’t want to relocate to the secure-housing unit, which is normally for disciplinary purposes. The lawsuit described those units as “small dark cells” that were “dark and noisy.”
Those who did become sick weren’t properly treated, the lawsuit alleges, leaving residents “terrified and depressed.”
Bar soap is limited along with other essential cleaning supplies, Price and Conway said. And laundry services are backed up, leaving some residents unable to wash their sheets for weeks at a time, the lawsuit said.
Price and Conway also said cleaning of common spaces was “haphazard.” Showers weren’t cleaned after individual use, and computers, iPads and other high-touch items weren’t disinfected after each use.
In fact, the disinfecting of shared surfaces and cleaning is so poor that one floor had an outbreak of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) last summer, the lawsuit said.
Conway, who tested positive for the virus in May, and Price said MCC had time to put proper protocols in place to ensure inmate and staff safety “and did not use it.”
“They have failed their responsibilities under federal law, the Constitution, and their own regulations. It is now time to order them to protect Plaintiffs and the Class,” the lawsuit said.
Price and Conway allege that the MCC’s mishandling of the pandemic has “damaged residents psychologically.”
The lawsuit is calling on the Federal Bureau of Prisons and MCC officials to develop a vaccination distribution plan — which includes educating residents and staff about the shots — and to start administering vaccines to residents 55 and older. It’s also demanding the jail design a better quarantine and isolation process, which includes testing all new residents at intake and putting them in a separate and safe holding space.
Price and Conway also asked the MCC to hire an infectious disease and public health expert to advise the facility’s handling of the pandemic as well as enforcing universal masking and providing more soap, sanitation stations and cleaning supplies for residents among other things.
Contributing: Jon Seidel
Read the full complaint below: