SAN DIEGO — Today, a superior court judge approved a settlement in a class action lawsuit challenging conditions in San Diego County jails that placed people who are incarcerated at heightened risk for severe illness or death due to COVID-19.
The ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC), Community Advocates for Just & Moral Governance (MoGo) and Brody McBride Law litigated the case. This case was filed in March 2021 against the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSD).
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs demanded that SDSD take common-sense measures to protect people incarcerated in its jails from exposure to COVID-19. Pursuant to the settlement, SDSD agreed to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission throughout county jails by implementing a series of measures, including:
- Make a prompt determination of whether people incarcerated in the jails are at heightened risk for severe illness or death due to COVID-19, and to promptly place high-risk people into more protective housing;
- Provide access to COVID-19 tests and prompt notification of test results;
- Distribute masks consistent with CDC standards;
- Ensure regular access to soap and cleaning supplies; and
- Provide clear COVID-19 vaccine information, developed by health professionals at the University of California, San Francisco, specifically for people who are incarcerated.
From the earliest days of the pandemic, it was clear that people who are incarcerated were especially vulnerable to COVID-19, which could spread rapidly in congregate settings such as carceral facilities, including immigration detention centers, prisons and jails.
By April 2020, there were reports that people incarcerated in the San Diego County jails were being penalized for pleading for better protection from the virus, and for attempting to publicize their plight. By December 2020, there had been more than 1,200 cumulative COVID-19 cases in San Diego County jails. When vaccines became available, the Sheriff’s Department refused to provide basic and understandable information about vaccine efficacy and side effects, making it impossible for people who are incarcerated to make informed decisions about getting vaccinated.
The Sheriff’s Department also spent years resisting public health guidance, declining to implement safe quarantine procedures and failing to take basic precautions when people who are incarcerated were transferred between facilities or taken to court hearings.
By October 2022, more than 4,600 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in San Diego County jails. There were at least six COVID-19 related deaths in the jails.
The following quotes are from plaintiff representatives:
Jonathan Markovitz, ACLU staff attorney: “Today is a good day because this settlement will provide meaningful protection against COVID-19 transmission in the San Diego County jails. However, a lawsuit should not have been necessary to force Sheriffs Bill Gore, Anthony Ray, or Kelly Martinez to uphold their duty to ensure the safety of people who are incarcerated. We realize that this settlement can’t begin to address the problems associated with mass incarceration in San Diego County. Since 2006, more than 225 people have died in county jails, which remain among the deadliest in the state. Incarceration cannot solve our housing or mental health crises or alleviate any of the root causes of property crime and violence.”
Brody McBride, of Brody McBride Law: “This is a great settlement for those who are incarcerated and those who work in San Diego County’s jails. We’re all safer because of it. But our fight isn’t over. We’re going to closely monitor the Sheriff’s Department to ensure it fully implements the settlement terms. And we’ll continue pushing the Sheriff’s Department to improve other conditions in the jails until San Diego County has one of the safest jail systems in the country.”
Geneviéve Jones-Wright, Executive Director of Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance: “I am hopeful San Diego County jails will become a bit safer as a result of this settlement. Now, the work begins to ensure compliance with our settlement terms, which provide long overdue and much-needed guidance for the Sheriff's Department. We didn't need the COVID-19 pandemic to reveal our Sheriff's Department's blatant disregard for human life and public health and safety. It, however, magnified it. As we are on course for our local jails to outpace the jail deaths at Rikers Island for a third consecutive year, I see this settlement as one step of, hopefully, many to hold our sheriff accountable for keeping incarcerated persons in her department's care safe, healthy, and alive. Honestly, this step towards accountability should not have had to happen as a result of a lawsuit, especially given the basic measures and precautions we asked for.”
Find the settlement agreement below.