Attorneys from the ACLU believe this is the first time a federal judge has certified an inmate-led lawsuit for damages against a state corrections department.
A federal judge in Oregon has certified prisoners’ coronavirus-related class action against the state.
According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, the decision is though to be the first-ever ruling in which a federal judge has allowed inmates to file a lawsuit for monetary damages over an individual state’s pandemic response strategy.
If the lawsuit succeeds, it could cost Oregon taxpayers millions of dollars to resolve.
Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s National Prison Project, told OPB that the judge’s decision is truly groundbreaking.
“This really is quite a groundbreaking order, and decision, and it could potentially be a model for advocates in other parts of the country where they’re having similar problems,” Kendrick said.
OPB notes that, in Oregon, at least 45 people died in Department of Corrections custody after testing positive for novel coronavirus.
At least 5,000 other inmates, says OPB, tested positive while behind bars.
In a statement, attorneys David Sugarman and Juan Chavez suggested that the Oregon Department of Corrections’ initial coronavirus containment strategy was a failure.
“The fears we had in April 2020 about how incarcerated people would be affected by the pandemic have sadly come to pass,” they said in a written statement. “The impact of the disease and its mishandling by those in charge has been devastating to people in prison.”
The Associated Press notes that Magistrate Judge Stacie Beckerman signed off on the wrongful death class action.
The lawsuit, says The Associated Press, will include the estates of the 45 adults who died in state custody and “for whom COVID-19 caused or contributed to their death.”
The other certified class will cover anyone who was incarcerated after February 1, 2020, who was diagnosed with novel coronavirus at least 14 days after they were put behind bars.
However, the Oregon government could still appeal Beckerman’s ruling.
But if the state cannot appeal, or refuses to settle with the inmates, the case may go to trial.
The Associated Press reports that the attorneys behind the lawsuit have already used the threat of continuing litigation to coerce Oregon into providing vaccines for adult inmates in February 2021, several months before coronavirus inoculations were available to the general public.
In their claim, the lawyers said that prisoners—unlike other people—have limited access to sanitary supplies and must necessarily live in cramped, densely populated spaces in which social distancing cannot be practiced.