11th Circuit Tosses Virus Safety Order Against Florida Jail

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

MIAMI (CN) — Inmates seeking stronger coronavirus protections at a Miami-area jail ran into a setback in the 11th Circuit, where a three-judge panel found Monday that the prisoners fell short of showing the jail was deliberately disregarding their wellbeing.

A 2-1 majority ruled there was insufficient evidence to justify a district court injunction that forced Metro West Detention Center in Doral, Florida, to take more infection-control measures amid the novel coronavirus outbreak. 

The jail was housing more than 1,500 inmates as of Sunday. On the edge of the Everglades swamp preserve, the facility houses pretrial prisoners and those with short sentences. ​

In the underlying class action against the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department, one plaintiff inmate complained that Metro West was a “petri dish for disease.” Among other infection-control issues, large bunk rooms with 60 inmates or more were set up with beds less than 3 feet away from each other, the lawsuit alleged. ​

“At times, there are only three showers and six toilets for over 65 people in the same cell to share,” the lawsuit states.

After an initial restraining order against the jail was issued, the corrections department outlined safeguards it had put in place, including expanded virus testing and a collaboration with the state officials to reduce Metro West’s population to 70% capacity.

But inmates claimed measures to keep them at a safe distance from one another remained lax. During prisoner pat-downs and lineups for food, inmates were still packed in close together, they claimed.

A federal judge in the Southern District of Florida sided again with the inmates on April 29 and granted a 45-day preliminary injunction, ordering Metro West to implement stronger social distancing. ​

Writing for the 11th Circuit majority Monday, U.S. Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom struck down the injunction on appeal. He found that the jail rearranging bunk beds, performing fever screening and providing protective masks and disinfecting products to inmates was a reasonable response to the viral epidemic. ​

Newsom heavily cited a line from a court-commissioned, independent inspection report completed in the midst of the litigation. The report found that the jail staff were “doing their best balancing social distancing and regulation applicable to the facility.”​

“We simply cannot conclude that, when faced with a perfect storm of a contagious virus and the space constraints inherent in a correctional facility, the defendants here acted unreasonably by ‘doing their best,'” wrote Newsom, a Donald Trump appointee. ​

The majority decision concluded that the plaintiffs did not present sufficient evidence that the jail administrators deliberately disregarded the risks that inmates were facing from the coronavirus outbreak. Showing deliberate disregard was necessary for the plaintiffs to prove their claims that the jail is violating their constitutional rights. ​

The plaintiffs’ attorney Quinn Smith said they plan to continue pursuing the case and seeking better infection control at the jail. He claimed the majority decision did not give fair weight to sections of the inspection report that say the Metro West staff dolled up the facility in anticipation of the inspection. ​

“There was substantial testimony that the jail was made to look nice for the inspection, that spaces were emptied on a temporary basis, that soap was put in places where they normally didn’t have it,” Smith said in an interview. ​

Smith said that once the record is more fully developed, the plaintiff prisoners will be able to show that prison officials have been ignoring grave safety concerns at Metro West. ​

The appellate court’s Monday ruling may be akin to an after-the-fact decision, given that the injunction at issue would have expired on Saturday. The injunction had been stayed pending appeal. ​

The parties were debating last week whether extra days should be tacked onto the injunction in light of the stay.

With questions of mootness lingering, the 11th Circuit handed down the decision on the first court day following the injunction’s expiration.  

Newsom noted that when reconsidering the case on remand, the lower court “might be faced … with a factual landscape that has changed since it issued its injunction.”​

He was joined in the majority by U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins, a George W. Bush appointee sitting by designation from the Middle District of Alabama.

In a dissenting opinion, U.S. Circuit Judge Beverly Martin wrote that the inmates have already shown “repeated failures to enact adequate social distancing measures” at Metro West. ​

“The Covid-19 pandemic is a global health crisis that has taken the lives of thousands and strained every level of our society and government. But crises do not lower the constitutional limits on the conditions in which people may be confined against their will,” wrote Martin, a Barack Obama appointee.

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