Clayton County Jail detainees have filed a lawsuit alleging Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill (center) and his staff are indifferent to conditions facilitating the spread of COVID-19 at the jail. (BRANT SANDERLIN/ AJC FILE)

By Bill Rankin | Atlanta Journal-Constitution | October 5, 2020

On May 9, a man awaiting trial on shoplifting and forgery charges was placed in a Clayton County jail cell without a mask with another man with COVID-19 symptoms — fever, cold sweats, difficulty breathing, diarrhea.

Days later, the man awaiting trial, identified in court filings by his initials W.L.M., was so sick he lost 15 pounds from severe diarrhea. One night he thought he was about to die because he felt like his lungs were about to collapse. To no surprise, W.L.M. learned on May 29 — about two weeks after he’d been tested — that he had the coronavirus.

W.L.M.’s description of what he called some of the darkest days in his life was recently disclosed with harrowing affidavits from others at the jail in a lawsuit filed against Sheriff Victor Hill and his staff. The suit contends they ignored people who reported COVID-19 symptoms, failed to isolate those with the virus, and failed to provide face masks and cleaning supplies to protect the people behind bars.

The detainees, represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights, the ACLU of Georgia and the American Civil Liberties Union, are asking U.S. District Court Judge J.P. Boulee to require the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office to develop a plan to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at the jail and to appoint a monitor to make sure it’s carried out.

In court filings, the Sheriff’s Office strongly opposes that request, insisting it is unnecessary. There is no COVID-19 outbreak at the jail and no one who has contracted it has died as a result, the office’s response said.

“Sheriff Hill and his staff, as well as the CorrectHealth medical team, should be applauded for their efforts and this result,” the filing said. They should not be forced “to defend meritless claims by people who have false hopes of using the COVID-19 pandemic as a means to obtain an early release from jail.”

Sheriff Hill and his staff have taken substantial steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to treat anyone who gets it, the filing states. This includes educating the staff and jail population; putting in place testing and quarantine procedures; making cleaning and disinfectant supplies readily available; distributing face masks; and restricting movement of those being held.

“The measures currently in place at CCJ are more than a reasonable response to COVID-19,” the filing said, referring to the jail.

Lawyers representing Hill also included an affidavit from D.M., another detainee. In it, D.M. said he was provided two masks when he entered the jail in May, and if someone loses a mask another is provided for free. D.M. also said cleaning supplies and disinfectants are easy to get at the jail, and that social distancing is practiced.

“I feel safe at CCJ and am not concerned about the risk of catching COVID-19,” D.M. said.

The affidavits submitted by lawyers representing the plaintiffs portray a far different picture.

W.L.M., for example, said when he was extremely sick, he repeatedly tried to get medical help but had to wait long periods before he received any attention.

“I have been terrified for my life throughout my time at this jail,” he said. “As I have told my loved ones, this experience has been like a nightmare. I have two children, and I did not think I was going to make it home to see them.”

Even though his worst symptoms have passed, W.L.M. said he still suffers from significant respiratory problems.

In July, an inmate identified as P.B. said he began having difficulty breathing and lost his sense of taste and smell. When he told a nurse about it, she gave him a Tylenol and sent him back to his cell without testing him for the virus, he said. P.B. said when he asked to be moved out of the housing unit so he wouldn’t infect others, he was put into a cell with two other men.

J.J.L. said he reported his cellmate’s COVID-19 symptoms to jail officials to no avail for three days in June. J.J.L. said he sought medical care for himself for days when he began vomiting and came down with a fever. He said he was not taken to a medical unit until an officer found him passed out on his cell floor, and even then he was not tested for the virus.

In the suit, which seeks class action status on behalf of all detainees, the civil rights lawyers disagree with the sheriff’s office’s assessment. They say an outbreak did occur in the jail.

In a Sept. 24 filing, lawyers for the plaintiffs told Boulee that if the jail adheres to a mitigation plan laid out in their court motions, the judge might not need to take action. But at the same time, the filing contends the Sheriff’s Office cannot be trusted because detainees interviewed by the Southern Center for Human Rights and ACLU lawyers say those policies are not being followed.

“Absent an injunction, there is an imminent risk that more people will become infected,” the lawyers said. “Some may suffer permanent injury or die.”