The ACLU of Massachusetts, together with Fick & Marx LLP, today brought a federal class action seeking the release of elderly, sick, and medically vulnerable people from the Federal Medical Center (FMC) in Devens, Massachusetts. The class action lawsuit seeks to vindicate the constitutional rights of people imprisoned at FMC Devens and, in so doing, to protect their safety and improve public health.
“The ACLU and public health experts have warned that jails and prisons could become incubators for COVID-19,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Indeed, the virus is spreading through correctional facilities around the country, with devastating consequences for imprisoned people, staff, local health care workers, and the broader community. People’s lives are at stake, and we’re asking for immediate action to stem the outbreak.”
The new lawsuit asks a federal judge to immediately release enough incarcerated people who are medically vulnerable and appropriate candidates for compassionate release or home confinement to ensure that the remaining incarcerated people and staff can comply with CDC guidelines for physical distancing.
“It is appalling that Devens continues to operate near full capacity in the face of a pandemic,” said Fick & Marx partner, William Fick. “There is no excuse for failing to immediately release elderly prisoners in their 70s and 80s, those with severe illness or disability, and those who have nearly completed their sentences. If the population of this prison doesn’t decrease significantly, people are going to die.”
“The notion that public safety trumps prisoner health is based on a false choice: failing to stop preventable outbreaks of COVID-19 in prisons not only violates the Constitution, but it also threatens all our of lives,” said Fick & Marx partner, Daniel Marx. “This deadly virus doesn’t stop at national borders, and it certainly won’t stop at prison walls. That is why everyone, including prisoners, must be able to practice effective social distancing.”
Although there have not yet been confirmed or publicly reported COVID-19 cases at FMC Devens, its particular population of federal prisoners is at uniquely high-risk of infection, serious illness, and death. In other pending federal litigation, FMC Devens has reported, through the U.S. Department of Justice, that numerous people in custody have developed symptoms that are common signs of COVID-19 infection. In a report filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the union representing many BOP staff reported health and safety hazards related to COVID-19 across many BOP facilities, including FMC Devens.
Echoing the warnings of public health experts, U.S. Attorney General William Barr recently directed the BOP to “prioritize the use of home confinement as a tool for combatting the dangers that COVID-19 poses to our vulnerable inmates.” According to the new ACLU lawsuit, the BOP has failed to use its authority to reduce the population of FMC Devens with sufficient speed or insufficient volume to mitigate the severe risk posed by COVID-19.
The new lawsuit builds on the ACLU’s litigation efforts to save the most vulnerable from the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic’s start, the ACLU of Massachusetts has filed several legal actions related to detention centers, prisons, and jails, and has urged government officials to ensure a response plan that protects the health, safety, and civil liberties of all people.
For the full class action complaint, go to: https://www.aclum.org/en/cases/grinis-v-spaulding
For more information about the ACLU of Massachusetts’ COVID-19 response recommendations, go to: aclum.org/covid19