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Lawsuit dismissed against Tuscaloosa Sheriff due to lack of COVID-19 records

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) voluntarily dismissed a lawsuit against Tuscaloosa County Sheriff Ron Abernathy after his attorneys acknowledged that Abernathy’s office had no records in response to a public records request seeking information about COVID-19 cases and protocols within the Tuscaloosa County Jail.  
 
Abernathy’s delayed response reflects six months of wasted time and court resources during a pandemic that has killed more than 450,000 people in the United States. The Sheriff’s Department has no written policies, guidance, protocols or training regarding COVID-19, which demonstrates a failure to comply with the CDC’s basic guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID in correctional facilities. These guidelines, among other preventative measures, instruct correctional facilities to develop a written communication plan to share critical information to incarcerated persons, staff and visitors; post signs and other information about COVID throughout the facility; make a list of social distancing strategies; and to provide staff with up-to-date policies about COVID, including sick leave. 
 
“It’s hard to believe the Sheriff is effectively managing this pandemic when he has nothing in writing on how to deal with it,” said Alex Jordan, SPLC staff attorney for the Economic Justice Project. “Our public records request revealed there are no written communications about COVID-19 between the Sheriff, the jail physician or any other staff member; and no memoranda or files on who has tested positive. The Sheriff claims to have implemented a variety of vague new protocols in response to the pandemic but can’t show a single piece of paper where those protocols have been memorialized for staff and those incarcerated.” Moreover, a memorandum issued by Abernathy suggests that only 7 percent of people booked into the jail since the beginning of the pandemic have been tested for COVID-19.
 
Despite this disappointing news about management of COVID-19 in the Tuscaloosa jail, SPLC has been heartened by the work of local activists. In the months since the records lawsuit was filed, members of the Ttown Freedom Marchers—who have been demonstrating for racial justice at Snow Hinton Park every Sunday since the murder of George Floyd have sought to bring transparency and accountability to their local jail while also soliciting donations of tens of thousands of masks to aid  incarcerated people.