Federal inmates who have sued a Utah jail and alleged a failure to adequately protect them from the coronavirus will not be able to seek immediate release through a habeas corpus petition, a judge ruled Friday.
Six people charged with federal crimes and held at Weber County Jail in Ogden filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court last month, asking for more inmates to be released to home confinement and additional health measures, such as mandating masks and providing hygiene supplies.
Attorney Benjamin McMurray, whose office represents over 100 jail inmates, said during a court teleconference hearing Friday that his clients must be removed from the jail to avoid what he described as “severe” and “unconstitutional” conditions.
He said his clients are being punished and put into disciplinary confinement if they continue to report symptoms.
Frank Mylar, who represents Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon, said some of the inmates lack any legal standing because they have already contracted the virus “and moved on.”
The risk of getting the virus has dropped as the jail has implemented additional sanitation and social distancing efforts since the first positive case on June 21, he said. The jail had 126 positive COVID-19 cases at its peak in late July, but that number has since dropped to 11 people, Mylar said.
McMurray said safety issues at the jail persist despite claims made by the sheriff and other jail officials. He said his clients have every right to be heard regardless of whether they have contracted the virus.
County officials “have had a constitutional obligation to protect them, to keep them safe and healthy, and they have failed in that. And our clients need to be released from that environment,” McMurray said.
Judge David Barlow said Friday that the inmates’ claims about jail conditions did not meet the threshold of habeas corpus, but he said his dismissal won’t prevent them from seeking further review in court.
Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.