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COVID-19 Lawsuit Filed By Incarcerated Iowans Against DOC Slated To Go To Trial In 2022

Inmates walk past correctional officers at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Wash., in 2011. Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday that more than 3,000 prisoners in Washington have been mistakenly released early since 2002 because of an error by the state's Department of Corrections.
Elaine Thompson
AP file
Five Iowans incarcerated at the Clarinda Correctional Facility are alleging that state policies and practices during the pandemic have deprived them of their rights and caused them to contract COVID-19.

A lawsuit brought by five incarcerated Iowans challenging the Iowa Department of Corrections’ handling of the coronavirus crisis will go forward. A judge has blocked an effort to have the case dismissed and the inmates are slated to go to trial next year.

Five Iowans incarcerated at the Clarinda Correctional Facility or CCF are suing the State of Iowa, The Iowa Department of Corrections, the Iowa Board of Parole and CCF, alleging that state policies and practices during the pandemic have deprived them of their rights and caused them to contract COVID-19.

The suit was brought by Jack Hays, Joseph Barnes, Tavius King, Joshua Juengel and Sylvester Campbell, who are representing themselves, alleging that they have been denied access to religious activities, to mental health treatment, and to other programming and services that are required for release from prison, and that they were subject to prolonged periods of solitary confinement and segregation.

Some of the plaintiffs allege that they contracted COVID-19 due to what they describe as the negligence of prison staff, who didn’t adequately quarantine those who tested positive and placed some of the plaintiffs in cells with sick individuals.

“I was placed in the cell with two men who had contracted COVID-19 and were very ill, even after I informed staff,” reads an affidavit from Jack Hays. “I contracted COVID-19 due to defendants having me placed in the cell with two sick men.”

“I contracted COVID-19 because of the defendants,” reads an affidavit from Joshua Juengel. “It seemed to me that the practices and actions of the defendants were deliberate to cause us to get COVID-19; such as placing infected prisoners in with prisoners whom were not infected.”

For a year, advocates have been calling on the DOC to do more to slow the spread of the virus, reduce chronic overcrowding at the state’s prisons, and strengthen COVID precautions in order to save lives. As of Friday, 19 inmates and two prison staffers had died of the disease.

A spokesperson for the ACLU of Iowa declined to comment directly on the case, but directed IPR to a letter outlining the organization’s concerns about the conditions in the state’s correctional facilities during the pandemic.

"People in Iowa's prisons and jails are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses. They are housed in close quarters and are often in poor health. Without the active engagement of the prison or jail administration, they have little ability to inform themselves about preventive measures, or to take such measures if they do manage to learn of them,” ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer wrote in a letter to state officials.

A spokesperson for the DOC declined a request to respond to the suit’s claims, saying the department doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

Assistant Attorney General William Hill, who is representing the state, has argued the claims in the case are vague and overly broad and sought to have the case dismissed. The plaintiffs are seeking relief not only under the Iowa Constitution, but under the Nelson Mandela Rules, international standards of treatment for prisoners, which “do not provide an independent basis to bring a claim against the State of Iowa," Hill wrote in a filing.

“In response to the scant allegations contained in the mere sixteen (16) paragraph complaint the State of Iowa asserts that the allegations are insufficient to state a viable claim and lack a jurisdictional basis,” Hill wrote. “The offenders by claiming violations of every potential statutory or constitutional right based on every possible jurisdictional basis, a party cannot simply make broad allegations and expect to be allowed to proceed.”

Nonetheless, District Judge Richard Davidson ruled last month that the suit should move forward, though any claims “based on international law and the Nelson Mandela Rules are dismissed”.

A non-jury trial has been scheduled for July 2022 in Page County and is expected to last four days, according to court filings.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter