OGDEN — The Federal Public Defenders’ office in Salt Lake City has filed a class action lawsuit against the Weber County Jail and the U.S. Marshals’ Service over inmates’ exposure to an outbreak of COVID-19.
The petition, filed in U.S. District Court on Friday, alleges county officials and marshals “are aware of the grave dangers posed by COVID-19 and have failed to implement measures to comply with their constitutional obligations to those in their custody.”
As of Friday, the Weber County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the jail, said 114 inmates were infected in the combined populations of 644 people in the 12th Street and Kiesel Avenue jails, according to data provided by the county.
The jails’ combined capacity is 1,148.
Since the first positive COVID-19 test on June 21, “we have taken extreme measures to identify, test, isolate, and quarantine” inmates to contain the spread, the Sheriff’s Office said in a news release Friday.
But the federal defenders’ petition alleged inmates are subjected to “unlawful and unconstitutional confinement.”
They asked the court to order the immediate transfer of the most medically vulnerable individuals; inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19; and “those remaining inmates in excess of the jail’s ability to comply with CDC guidelines.”
The petition also asks the court to “order the immediate implementation of (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines, including the social distancing and hygiene measures essential to lowering the risk of the disease and of death for those who remain.”
Jail officials have said thorough social distancing is largely impossible in the confined spaces of a jail but that they have done as much as they can to quarantine infected inmates from the rest.
But the defenders asserted inmates’ detention during the outbreak is “so grave that it violates contemporary standards of decency to expose anyone unwillingly to such a risk” and violates their constitutional right to safety in government custody.
Without court intervention, inmates “will continue to be at imminent risk of severe, preventable illness or death,” the petition said.
The six inmates named in the petition are federal prisoners, some awaiting sentencing or trial. The Marshals’ Service contracts with Weber County to house its prisoners pending the outcome of their cases.
The suit said one of the inmates has asthma and is suffering shortness of breath. Three of the others have tested positive for COVID-19, the suit said.
The petition names as defendants Sheriff Ryan Arbon, Utah District Marshal Matt Harris and Marshals’ Service Director Donald Washington.
The county has been under pressure from civil liberties groups and inmates and their families since the outbreak began.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, the El Comite Social Justice Movement and the Black Lives Matter Northern Utah chapter held a rally in front of the county building Friday urging County Attorney Chris Allred to work with local state court judges to release inmates.
Allred and the Sheriff’s Office said Friday they are doing all they can to help limit the outbreak.
Efforts to contact Harris were not immediately successful Monday.