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SPLC Sues Tuscaloosa Sheriff for Failing to Release Public Records about COVID-19 at the Jail

Sheriff Ron Abernathy is Withholding Public Health Information Essential for the Protection of Incarcerated People, Jail Staff, and the Public, Lawsuit States

MONTGOMERY, Alabama - The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a lawsuit today against Tuscaloosa County Sheriff Ron Abernathy for not complying with the Alabama Open Records Act. Nearly four months after SPLC requested public information regarding COVID-19 in Tuscaloosa’s jail, Abernathy has failed to respond.

The complaint, filed in the Circuit Court of Tuscaloosa County, asks the court to compel Abernathy to respond to its public records request and numerous follow-up attempts seeking information critical to the health and safety of Tuscaloosa residents and Alabamians, including the number of COVID-19 tests administered, number of positive cases, and related cell assignment policies.

More than 220,000 Alabamians - and more than 12,000 Tuscaloosa residents - have been infected with COVID-19 since March 2020. Thousands have died and cases continue to rise.

“We know that jails and prisons are especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19,” said Alex Jordan, SPLC staff attorney for the Economic Justice Project. “Incarcerated people are crowded in close quarters without the ability to safely social-distance and without access to essential personal protective equipment. Staff come and go between the jail and the community daily. New people are booked into the jail and released each day. Despite this perfect storm created for COVID-19 to spread and the dangers it poses to Tuscaloosa residents inside and outside the jail, Sheriff Abernathy is refusing to disclose information, which the public is entitled to under Alabama law.”

Despite the dangers of a pandemic, the Tuscaloosa County Jail is operating at 135 percent of its capacity and, in September 2020, an outbreak of approximately 100 people occurred within the jail, according to the complaint filed today. The Alabama Department of Corrections, which publishes updated COVID-19 data on its website, has recorded nearly 1,400 cases and at least 34 deaths across 33 of its facilities throughout the state. Other outbreaks have been reported at the jails in Mobile and Bullock counties.

“Many people, accused of committing only misdemeanor offenses, are sitting in the Tuscaloosa County jail simply because they cannot afford to pay for their release, putting their health and well-being at-risk,” Jordan said. “Sheriff Abernathy is choosing to withhold essential information that would allow incarcerated people, jail staff, justice system stakeholders and the public to protect themselves from this virus that has proven to be deadly in some cases.”

The complaint is available here