As Coronavirus Spreads in Nation's Jails, Inmates Sue Correctional Systems for Soap and Paper Towels

Image for article titled As Coronavirus Spreads in Nation's Jails, Inmates Sue Correctional Systems for Soap and Paper Towels
Photo: Shutterstock

It’s one of the most basic ways to fight the spread of the coronavirus: soap and clean towels. But on Monday, people locked behind bars in Washington, D.C. and Texas had to sue correctional facilities in order to get them.


Filed in federal court, the D.C. and Texas lawsuits accuse their respective prison systems of not doing enough to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus within their jails and prisons, CNN reports. Detainees in the nation’s capital say they’ve been given only one bar of soap for the month of March, have no access to hand sanitizer (which is banned), and are prohibited from getting more cleaning supplies.

“Some residents have already run out of their single allotted bar [of soap], while others are not using the single bar because they do not know when the next bar will come,” the lawsuit reads. “On at least one unit, a closet full of cleaning supplies and clean rags is present, but residents are told they will be punished if they attempt to access or use those supplies to clean the unit, their own cells, or their hands and bodies.”

This refusal to adequately care for the detainees—despite clear instructions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and warnings from numerous public health officials—is a violation of their constitutional rights, including protection from cruel and unusual punishment, the lawsuit says. The D.C. lawsuit asks for the release of prisoners and detainees; it also demands hand soap, paper towels, toilet paper, running water, no-touch trash cans and hand sanitizer be given to those remaining in district’s correctional facilities, as well as access to daily showers and clean laundry.

The lawsuit coming out of Texas makes similar allegations: those incarcerated want hand sanitizer, soap, and paper towels, and say their prison unit hasn’t taken the necessary precautions to stem coronavirus outbreaks.

Some public health officials who work in the country’s prisons and jails say they have been working for months trying to prepare for a potential public health crisis.

“We will put ourselves at personal risk and ask little in return. But we cannot change the fundamental nature of jail. We cannot socially distance dozens of elderly men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom,” warned Ross MacDonald, chief physician for New York City’s jail system.


Cook County jail in Chicago and Riker’s Island have been hit particularly hard by coronavirus outbreaks, with 101 inmates and a dozen employees testing positive for the virus in Chicago earlier this week. At Riker’s, officials confirmed 167 cases among inmates as of Monday, reports the New York Times.

An unchecked spread of the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, would jeopardize the lives of people living and working in the jail, but a surge of cases from U.S. correctional facilities would have massive ripple effects outside of the carceral system.


“By keeping more people in the jails, you are increasing the overall number of people who contract the virus,” David E. Patton, head of the federal public defender’s office in New York City, told the Times. Every sick person increases the demand for hospital beds, ventilators, and other necessary, life-saving resources.

Recently, the federal prison system put in place a “de facto lockdown” writes the New York Daily News: nationwide, those incarcerated in federal facilities will be confined to their cells for two weeks, only being let out “under limited circumstances.”