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Twin Lawsuits Show Limits of Jail-Reform Litigation

Two years of litigation over the handling of coronavirus controls in the Washington, D.C., and Prince George's County, Md., jails helped expose some grim realities, but ultimately illustrate how fleeting the direct impact of such lawsuits can be, the Washington Post reports. “This to me is a perfect example of why lawsuits can call attention to very pressing problems, but they are limited,” said Ellora Israni, the Civil Rights Corps attorney who helped lead the litigation in Prince George’s. “Lawsuits are not going to solve these problems in and of themselves.”


A settlement in the Prince George's lawsuit imposed mandatory testing, isolation and vaccine protocols to try to help the people incarcerated at the jail, where people had complained of poor conditions. Once the oversight ended, though, lawyers for the incarcerated people in that jail were reduced to sending a threatening letter as omicron cases of coronavirus surged last December. In D.C., attorneys had accused the Department of Corrections of failing to provide basic sanitary equipment and medical care as people in early 2020 fell ill behind bars. For a time, said Scott Michelman, the legal director of the ACLU of D.C., the lawsuit worked. A federal judge issued an injunction requiring higher health standards, and the jail invested in more resources as a result. But, by July 2021, the city used the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a federal law that makes it harder for incarcerated people to file lawsuits, to argue that the injunction had expired, a position upheld by the D.C. Court of Appeals. When omicron cases began appearing in the jail, no active court oversight was in place. “My impression is that these are very temporary changes,” said infectious-disease specialist Carlos Franco-Paredes, who played a role in inspecting both jails. “Once we aren’t watching, I don’t think there is any clear effort to make these systemic, long-term changes.”

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