The ACLU of Virginia is taking legal actions against the Commonwealth of Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam, and state and local officials to ensure they are using their full authority to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, jails and correctional facilities and prevent more illnesses and deaths.
The COVID-19 pandemic poses an immediate, potentially deadly threat to the thousands of men, women and children being held in Virginia’s correctional facilities, many of whom have not been convicted of a crime. The ACLU of Virginia has filed a petition with the Virginia Supreme Court, known as a writ of mandamus, asking it to order government officials to fulfill their legal obligations to provide adequate care for people in custody.
The petition argues that overcrowded facilities and current conditions make social distancing impossible, and requests that officials decarcerate facilities as much as safely possible in order to adhere to guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Virginia’s own Department of Health. Additionally, facilities must provide proper access to sanitation products and health care.
“The governor has refused to lead a uniform statewide response to address this health crisis within our prisons and jails, and we must now look to the Supreme Court of Virginia to compel him and other public officials to do fulfill their duty to keep people safe who are in their custody,” said Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia. “We’ve been warning the governor and other state and local officials with responsibility for custodial facilities that COVID-19 will spread like wildfire in these facilities, and unfortunately, we’ve been proven right. People are dying and need immediate help.”
The ACLU of Virginia has also joined a federal class action lawsuit as co-counsel with Charlottesville attorney Elliott Harding on behalf of 27 people who are incarcerated in Virginia prisons. The lawsuit was filed Wednesday, April 8 against Gov. Ralph Northam, Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran and other state officials. It alleges that Virginia is violating the U.S. Constitution by failing to decarcerate overcrowded facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, and asks that the Commonwealth be ordered to immediately decrease the number of people in custody, implement policies for social distancing, and require staff members to wear personal protection equipment.