COVID-19 in Jails: A Case Study


By: Wes Jackson

By now we are all familiar with the CDC’s recommendations for limiting the spread of COVID-19: “social distancing,” maintaining a distance of six feet from others as much as possible, avoiding large gatherings, and self-isolation if you exhibit symptoms of the disease or test positive, among others. As challenging as these practices can be for the general public, they pose a unique challenge to jail administrators who are now tasked with limiting the spread of COVID-19 amongst inmates tightly packed into closed places. All the while, jail officials must also maintain order and security in the jail while respecting the constitutional rights of inmates.

How should jails balance these competing interests and, perhaps more importantly, who gets to decide? There are no clear answers to those questions. Interestingly, though, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion in Swain v. Junior that provides a helpful analysis.

In Swain, inmates at Miami’s Metro West Detention Center filed for a preliminary injunction and habeas relief against the jail administrator, arguing that the jail was not doing enough to stop the spread of COVID-19 between inmates. While it was uncontested that the jail had already undertaken many measures recommended by the CDC  to address COVID-19 in jail settings (you can read that guidance here), the inmates nevertheless asked the federal district court to issue an injunction requiring the jail to take various precautions. The district court agreed and ordered the jail to implement several specific practices to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the jail, including maintenance of six feet social distancing “to the maximum extent possible;” strict testing and PPE requirements, and new procedures for the provision of medical care, among others.

The jail then went to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals to ask for a stay of the injunction. The Eleventh Circuit, applying the “deliberate indifference to a risk of serious harm” standard, found that the measures the jail had taken were constitutionally adequate and did not require an immediate injunction. Specifically, the Court of Appeals found that “the evidence supports that the defendants are taking the risk of COVID-19 seriously.” The Court also noted that local governments are in the best position to allocate resources in high-demand needed to prevent, test for, and treat COVID-19 amongst various local facilities, and the district court could not assume the role of “super warden” in ordering a particular allocation of those limited resources.

In short, the COVID-19 pandemic poses a novel challenge to jail administrators. At least for now, the Eleventh Circuit has granted one jail some latitude in how it addresses that challenge. The Eleventh Circuit’s decision is consistent with federal courts’ reluctance to micromanage correctional facilities in the absence of widespread constitutional violations.   

If you have any questions about local governments’ response to COVID-19, please contact Wes Jackson at [email protected].

Additional Information:

The FMG Coronavirus Task Team will be conducting a series of webinars on Coronavirus issues on a regular basis.  Click here to view upcoming webinars.

FMG has formed a Coronavirus Task Force to provide up-to-the-minute information, strategic advice, and practical solutions for our clients.  Our group is an interdisciplinary team of attorneys who can address the multitude of legal issues arising out of the coronavirus pandemic, including issues related to Healthcare, Product Liability, Tort Liability, Data Privacy, and Cyber and Local Governments.  For more information about the Task Force, click here.

You can also contact your FMG relationship partner or email the team with any questions at [email protected].

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