ACLU lawyers file for class certification of lawsuit related to COVID-19
On Thursday, American Civil Liberties Union attorneys representing all Lompoc prison inmates asked a federal judge to certify their class action lawsuit against prison administrators.
The lawsuit alleges Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex Prison Warden Louis Milusnic and Federal Bureau of Prisons director Michael Carvajal mishandled the prison’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
ACLU attorneys sued on May 16 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
According to the ACLU’s motion to certify the class action, plaintiffs asked Judge Consuelo B. Marshall to include “All current and future people in post-conviction custody at (Federal Correctional Institution) Lompoc and (United States Penitentiary) Lompoc,” in the class.
The motion noted that Judge Marshall has the authority to change the plaintiff’s proposed class definition.
The lawsuit named plaintiffs, Yonnedil Carror Torres, Vincent Reed, Felix Samuel Garcia, Andre Brown, and Shawn L. Fears allege Mr. Milusnic and Mr. Carvajal failed to implement adequate public health measures to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plaintiffs asked Judge Marshall for emergency relief including “to put in place a process-based remedy that requires respondents to evaluate prisoners for home confinement and compassionate release on an accelerated basis and to eliminate eligibility barriers that categorically exclude most prisoners from consideration, even those who are non-violent and have a viable release plan,” and “to institute social distancing, sanitation, and medical treatment policies that would bring prison conditions in compliance with the Eighth Amendment.”
Plaintiffs reiterated they did not ask Judge Marshall to determine whether any individual prisoner qualifies for home confinement. They asked him to “set constitutional standards” for the defendants to make those decisions and to require the defendants to “to implement policies that improve Lompoc’s health and safety conditions.”
The motion argued that the class should include current and future prisoners to avoid substantial and potentially fatal harm, “As demonstrated by the death of Daniel Vadnais, who died on the day that Petitioners filed their TRO Application and is the fourth prisoner to die at Lompoc.”
Mr. Vadnais, 56, tested positive for COVID-19 on May 2. He died June 1.
Plaintiffs argued the Lompoc prison complex has one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks of any federal prison. The plaintiffs estimate 1,066 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 over the past two months.
“Despite these sobering statistics, Respondents have refused to follow Centers for Disease Control Guidance for Correctional Facilities regarding social distancing, testing, tracing, quarantine and isolation of suspected and confirmed cases, hygiene and medical care,” the motion alleged.
Plaintiffs said the defendants “repudiated” Attorney General William Barr’s direction to transfer inmates to home confinement in appropriate cases.
The deadline for Mr. Milusnic and Mr. Carvajal’s attorneys to file a motion to prevent class certification ends at 10 a.m. today.
Lori Bertsch described the conditions her boyfriend Korey Fivecoats is experiencing in Lompoc FCI. Ms. Bertsch said Mr. Fivecoats reported conditions in the jail improved when the ACLU filed their lawsuit in May.
“As soon as the ACLU started with this lawsuit, it prompted them (jail staff) to do a couple of things. They (prisoners) had to go without commissary for quite some time and their one to two weeks with no phones was more like six weeks,” Ms. Bertsch said. She explained that jail staff have reopened the commissary, which is the prison convenience store for inmates, and are allowing inmates to have more phone calls.
Ms. Bertsch added that while COVID-19 testing in the jail has improved, it often comes with what inmates feel is a punishment.
“The deal was if they (prisoners) had symptoms, the officers and the medics would let them know ‘We’ll test you, but if you test positive, you’ll be moved up a level in security. You’ll lose access. You won’t be able to have any contact for two weeks,’” Ms. Bertsch.
She explained that inmates didn’t want medium security status because prison staff would confine them without their property and without access to prison recreational activities.
“It’s like isolation for two weeks. Nobody wanted to have symptoms, and that’s why people got really, really sick. It was almost like a threat, ‘If you raise our numbers then you’re gonna be in this place.’”