COVID protocol agreed on for Tulare County jails

ACLU of Northern California announces settlement agreement to better protect inmates in Tulare County jails

TULARE COUNTY – COVID-19 protection policy in Tulare County jails has been under constant scrutiny since the pandemic began last year. But policies are beginning to fall into place now that a court ordered agreement is in place.

Last month the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced that Sheriff Mike Boudreaux and his department, which includes the county’s jail system, submitted to a preliminary settlement agreement to enact approved COVID-19 protective guidelines.

ACLU of North California stated that Tulare County jails will provide: The jails will provide CDC- and county health agency-compliant masking, testing, vaccination, and contact tracing policies; education and outreach to incarcerated individuals and staff about the efficacy of vaccines; weekly reporting of relevant data about COVID, including information about vaccinations and outbreaks to the public; an independent expert to visit the jails several times to ensure compliance with the settlement agreement.

The ACLU noted as well that the agreement can be extended if overall conditions are still unsafe when the agreement is set to expire at the end of March 2022. The agreement had already been approved by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors.

The settlement agreement from August stems from a case the ACLU had filed last November. Documents filed in December 2020 by the ACLU showed that 38 of the 70 inmates tested in a low-level offender wing of Bob Wiley detention facility were positive. There were also assertions that symptomatic inmates along with incoming inmates did not follow the proper protocol to prevent the spread of the disease.

In addition, investigators with the ACLU asserted that the Sheriff’s department violated COVID-19 positive inmates’ right to recreation by quarantining them 24 hours per day.

This is not the first time the Sheriff’s department has had a run in with the court over COVID-19 policy. While the Sheriff stated he enforced face masks, social distancing and quarantine protocols since March 2020, a federal judge ordered him last September to write it down after he could not produce a documented plan in court.

“[Sheriff Boudreaux] has also not presented any evidence to the court of an adoption of any sort of comprehensive social distancing policy,” U.S. District Court Judge Dale A. Drozd wrote in his Sept. 3 ruling. “Instead, defendant asserts that a handful of distinct efforts have been implemented (though it is unclear when those efforts were undertaken, or if they are memorialized anywhere in writing).”

The ruling was in regards to a class action lawsuit filed on July 29, 2020 by the ACLU Foundation of Northern California and the law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP on behalf of four inmates who argued Sheriff Boudreaux had a “callous indifference to [inmates’] health and safety.” Charles Criswell, Levi Johnson, Samuel Camposeco, Adam Ibarra stated in the complaint they were filing the lawsuit to compel the Sheriff to take immediate precautions to prevent a severe spread of COVID-19 that would expose approximately 1,900 incarcerated people to serious illness or death. They claim Boudreaux “flatly refused” a Tulare County judge’s order to begin testing all inmates, refused to force inmates to wear masks and refused their requests to social distancing despite available bed space. The ACLU said when one of the plaintiffs made his own mask, jail officials confiscated it and inmates who developed flu-like symptoms and requested COVID-19 tests were told Tulare County jails don’t conduct them. Based on the positivity rate of the small number of inmates and staff testing in June, the ACLU says there were likely more than 150 positive cases that went undetected.

“The Tulare County sheriff has not only failed to establish and enforce proper policies and protocols to prevent the virus’ spread, he has actively taken steps to prevent incarcerated people from taking simple precautions like donning cloth face coverings,” Kathleen Guneratne, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California said.

The ACLU also claims the Sheriff “stymied” their efforts to meet confidentially with the plaintiffs about their complaints, a violation of their First, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The ACLU said its investigators witnessed this first-hand.

On May 18, 2020 and May 28, 2020 Ibarra spoke with an ACLU investigator about his concerns. Not long after the second interview, one of the TCSO sergeants took Ibarra out of his housing unit to ask him about conversations with the ACLU. Ibarra refused to speak with the investigator and was returned to his cell.

After writing a letter about his complaints in early June 2020, Camposeco did not schedule another in-person legal visit with ACLU. Camposeco can only write letters or call the ACLU attorneys on a non-confidential line during the brief time he spends outside his cell each day, making it difficult for him to discuss the lack of COVID-19 protocols with his legal representative.

“In response to the decision made by the Eastern District Court, Sheriff Boudreaux respects the court’s process in ensuring fair treatment of all parties involved,” the Sheriff’s Department said in a released statement. “That being said, the information the judge was relying on when making his decision was based on outdated procedures of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office.”

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