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Inmates in Washington, D.C., sue over coronavirus fears, claim staff not taking precautions

"Incarceration should not be a death sentence." said the legal co-director of the ACLU's local chapter.

Four inmates at a jail in Washington, D.C., filed a class-action lawsuit this week alleging that staff members are not taking proper safety precautions, putting the inmates at risk of being infected with the coronavirus.

The lawsuit claims that inmates at the Central Detention Facility and a treatment center next door were showing symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, but were denied tests and had to wait days before they could get medical treatment.

It also accuses the jail of failing to provide free soap to inmates and moving the hand sanitizer so only staff can use it.

The suit against the Corrections Department was filed Monday in U.S. District Court by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Defender Service.

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"Although they are fully aware of the risks of COVID-19 and the precautions that need to be taken to prevent those risks, plaintiffs are systematically denied the opportunity to take the same preventive care that others are required or urged to take by local and federal officials," the lawsuit states.

The Corrections Department's failure to take the necessary preventive measures "gravely jeopardizes the safety" of the inmates, they said in the lawsuit, adding that the facility had five confirmed cases of the coronavirus.

"Like nursing homes, cruise ships, and college dormitories, correctional facilities are environments that enable, and in fact facilitate, the spread of COVID-19," they said.

The Corrections Department did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday.

The lawsuit further alleges that new inmates, as well as staff members and other people entering the facility, are not properly screened for symptoms and that inmates are not given proper cleaning supplies to disinfect the common areas and their cells. Because they cannot easily follow social distancing guidelines, they are at greater risk of getting the virus, the inmates said.

Scott Michelman, legal co-director for the local ACLU, said in a statement that "incarceration should not be a death sentence."

"The District's utter indifference to the health and safety to the hundreds of individuals it holds in custody puts all their lives, along with the employees who work at the jail and the community at large, in jeopardy," he said.

The lack of precaution violates the inmates' rights, they said. They are seeking a court order to release offenders serving time for misdemeanors and to compel the Corrections Department to implement safety measures.

"Downsizing the population in defendants' custody is the only strategy to ensure the reasonable health and safety of plaintiffs and proposed class members," the lawsuit states.

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There have been indications that COVID-19 is beginning to spread in jail and prison facilities around the country. Prisoners have tested positive for the virus in a number of states, including Illinois, New Jersey, California and Texas.

Authorities have responded by cutting down on arrests, banning jail visits and releasing detainees determined to be of low risk to the public.

In Los Angeles County, which has America's largest jail system, 1,700 inmates were released. Other states, such as Illinois, New Jersey, South Carolina and Tennessee, have done the same.