Court: Inability to contain COVID in Miami jail doesn’t constitute ‘deliberate indifference’

Medically vulnerable inmates at Metro West believe the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitations Department has done too little to protect them from coronavirus. Credit: Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitations Department website

In a 2-1 ruling Monday, a federal appeals court rejected the pleas of pre-trial detainees trying to avoid COVID-19 infection inside a Miami jail, although the court acknowledged it is impossible to achieve safe distancing as the virus spreads through the facility.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling, written by Judge Kevin Newsom, concedes that the “contagious virus represents a grave health risk to them — and graver still to those who have underlying conditions that render them medically vulnerable.”

But even though Daniel Junior, director of the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department and officials in the its Metro West Detention Center knew of the risk to inmates, they cannot be liable if they responded reasonably — “even if the harm ultimately was not averted” and inmates become infected or die, Newsom wrote.

Two of the three judges agreed that the class action filed on April 5 by seven “medically vulnerable pretrial detainees” at Metro West did not meet the high standard of proving “deliberate indifference” on the part of their jailers.

In other words, if it is impossible to safely distance inmates during the pandemic, the jailers cannot be found “indifferent” to their plight if inmates become sick or die, the ruling says.

The lead plaintiff, detainee Anthony Swain, has since contracted COVID-19, according to a Miami New Times report. Swain has been in pre-trial detention for four years, awaiting trial on drug charges, the report says.

Monday’s ruling, sending the case back to the district court, says that requiring testing for all inmates with COVID-19 symptoms and their contacts could restrict “politically accountable” officials from allocating testing resources as they choose.

Circuit Judge Beverly Martin dissented.

“This record shows that defendants knowingly maintained conditions that placed detainees at an impermissibly high risk of illness and death in two ways: first, by maintaining a dangerously high jail population; and second, by failing to implement needed safety measures that would reduce the risk of infection in that already unsafe population level,” she wrote.

Judge Martin opined that the “most important step for ensuring detainee safety” was to rapidly decrease the jailed population and that failure to do so ”supports a finding of deliberate indifference.”

The appellate court overruled an injunction by the U.S District Court for the Southern District of Florida directing officials at the detention center to reduce the inmate population, enforce safe distancing, provide inmates with more personal hygiene products, and take other measures to protect inmates and staff.

“Metro West has neither the capacity not the ability to comply with public health guidelines to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 and cannot provide for” the inmates’ safety, the detainees wrote in their lawsuit, and the judges agreed though they ruled in the jailers’ favor.

On April 14, the district judge ordered two independent experts to inspect the detention center. Court records say the experts concluded the jailers were “doing their best balancing social distancing and regulation applicable to the facility” and that they were to be commended for their efforts.

However, court-appointed inspectors also reported it is not possible to safely distance inmates at the facility, and medical experts told the court that, without safe distancing, other measures would prove inadequate, according to court records.

The inspectors called for “an urgent decrease in the population density” to make it possible to practice distancing measures called for by the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

The Corrections and Rehabilitation Department at Miami-Dade did not immediately respond to questions about the inmate population at Metro West and the spread of coronavirus there.

Lawsuits aiming to reduce inmate populations to curb the rate of infections and deaths behind bars is under way in federal and state prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers across the country.

Update on June 16: Responding to the Florida Phoenix, the Corrections and Rehabilitation Department reported Tuesday that one inmate died there of COVID-19; 592 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, of which 30 are currently in medical isolation; and 123 employees have tested positive, of which 82 have returned to work.