After the sheriff of Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, failed to release public records about COVID-19 within the county jail, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against the sheriff for violating the Alabama Open Records Act.
The lawsuit was filed four months after the SPLC requested the public health information essential for the protection of incarcerated people, jail staff and the public during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.
The complaint, filed in the Circuit Court of Tuscaloosa County, asks the court to compel Sheriff Ron Abernathy to respond to the SPLC’s public records request seeking information regarding the number of COVID-19 tests administered, number of positive cases and related cell assignment policies.
A COVID-19 outbreak affecting approximately 100 people at the jail occurred in September 2020, according to the complaint. Despite the dangers of the pandemic, the Tuscaloosa County Jail is severely overcrowded. Many of the people incarcerated in the jail have not been convicted of any crime, are accused of committing only misdemeanor offenses and are trapped in unsafe conditions simply because they cannot afford to pay for their release.
Jails and prisons are especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 because incarcerated people are housed in close quarters and without access to essential personal protective equipment. What’s more, jail staff move between the jail and the community daily, as do new people booked into the jail or released, creating conditions ripe for spreading the coronavirus inside and outside the jail.
The Alabama Department of Corrections, which publishes COVID-19 data on its website, had recorded nearly 1,400 cases and at least 34 deaths across 33 of its facilities as of November 2020. Other outbreaks have been reported at the jails in Mobile and Bullock counties.
At the time the lawsuit was filed, more than 220,000 Alabamians – and more than 12,000 Tuscaloosa County residents – had been infected with COVID-19. Thousands of people died as cases continued to rise.