Civil rights groups sue Clayton Sheriff Hill over COVID-19 reporting

The Southern Center for Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia have filed a lawsuit against Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill. The organizations say Hill violated open records laws by allegedly refusing requests to turn over documents about any COVID-19 cases at the jail.
The Southern Center for Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia have filed a lawsuit against Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill. The organizations say Hill violated open records laws by allegedly refusing requests to turn over documents about any COVID-19 cases at the jail.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia and the Southern Center for Human Rights are suing Clayton Sheriff Victor Hill, claiming he has not complied with open records requests related to coronavirus testing at the jail.

The organizations want to know if inmates and staff are being tested for COVID-19 and if anyone has had a positive result.

The groups argue the information is important because of concerns the disease can transmit easily in tightly packed penal institutions. They also want information about how the jail is stemming spread of the disease, if it is present at the facility, which is operating at nearly full capacity.

“The sheriff’s office has declined to make public any documents that show the effects of COVID-19 at the jail, even basic information like the number of people infected or the number of people tested,” said Sarah Geraghty, managing director for the Southern Center’s Impact Litigation Unit. “It’s not a secret that the sheriff gets to guard.”

The Clayton Sheriff’s Office did not return emails and calls Thursday for comment.

Concerns about infection rates in jails have grown because steps taken by the general public to contain the virus, such as social distancing, are not possible in corrections facilities. Many law enforcement agencies, including some in metro Atlanta, have adjusted what are considered jailable offenses to avoid increasing exposure to the virus.

“If you think about high risk populations for COVID-19, probably the highest risk are people in nursing homes and long-term care settings followed closely by people in prison and jails,” said Harry Heiman, clinical associate professor in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University. “They are housed in close proximity in conditions, which under the best of circumstances, don’t maximize things like social distancing, hygiene and sanitizing and things that we on the outside are doing to reduce risk.”

The ACLU and Southern Center lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Clayton Superior Court. In it, the plaintiffs say that between April 29 and May 9, they reached out to the Clayton Sheriff’s Office on at least three different occasions seeking coronavirus-related information from the jail.

The first response they received was an “image purporting to represent the jail’s inmate population,” according to the suit, but “no responsive documents/records.” They were told in a follow up request that the information was exempted from disclosure as personal medical records and that a court order would be required for its release, according to the lawsuit.

An attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights responded that the open records act allowed the county to redact some information, but not withhold it altogether.

Geraghty said Clayton County stands out because it has among the highest occupancy rates of inmates in metro Atlanta, according to figures released in May from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

Clayton’s Jail, which can hold 1,920 inmates, was at 97% capacity with 1,867 incarcerated individuals, according to a May 7 population report. Gwinnett, by comparison, was at 63% capacity with 1,732 inmates on the same date, though it can hold 2,744.

Southern Center and ACLU officials have filed open records requests for COVID-19 information with a number of metro Atlanta counties, including DeKalb, Gwinnett, Fulton and Henry, each whom have complied, the groups said.

Fulton, for instance, on May 12 released to the group that 32 inmates and five members of the jail tested positive for the virus up to that date. The jail had no deaths from the disease as of May 12.

Kosha Tucker, staff attorney with the Georgia ACLU, said it is critical that jails be transparent.

“Filing these open records requests can sometimes be the only way in which the public can get this information,” Tucker said. “County jails aren’t publishing this information in any publicly accessible database online.”

The Clayton County Jail leads metro Atlanta in the occupancy of its facility, according a May 2020 report by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

Here are the occupancy numbers for metro Atlanta jails as were recorded on May 7, 2020:

Clayton: 97%

Cobb: 58%

DeKalb: 36%

Fayette: 30%

Fulton: 91%

Gwinnett: 63%

Henry: 39%

Source: Georgia Department of Community Affairs

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