How US inmates fought for vaccines, protection

Russell Leaks had more reasons to be worried about the coronavirus than most people.

The 66-year-old Tennessee cook suffers from chronic liver disease, high blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat and the toll of a heart attack. And he was in jail, a place where the virus spreads easily.

Leaks got COVID-19 in late November while awaiting final court action on a parole violation charge. The disease left him so short of breath he could barely talk on the phone with relatives. After receiving what he characterized as minimal medical treatment at the jail, he finally recovered in early January.

“I felt degraded. I felt like an animal,” Leaks said of his health ordeal. “I felt like I was put there to die.”

Leaks is among incarcerated people across the country who have fought the danger of COVID-19 by joining their names and experiences with lawsuits over health conditions in jails and prisons. Alleging that their treatment violated the U.S. Constitution, they have sued correctional and detention facilities and government officials.

Dozens of cases were filed by American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, local attorneys,   and large law firms that took them on for free. The suits asked courts to reduce jail and prison populations, eliminate overcrowding that makes social distancing practically impossible, or take steps to protect older and medically at-risk detainees, like Leaks. One lawsuit asked a court to prioritize jail inmates for COVID-19 vaccines.

“We just had a sense of, let’s try to litigate this disaster, if we can, and help as many people as possible,” said Andrea Woods, an ACLU attorney who worked on the Tennessee case that includes Leaks.