LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - Seven women serving time at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women in Pewee Valley have filed a lawsuit at U.S. District Court in Louisville seeking their immediate release from prison due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The seven, who range from 26 to 46 years old, say they are seeking release because they are at heightened risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19 due to underlying medical conditions, which include chronic lung, heart and kidney ailments, as well as cystic fibrosis.
They filed the action Monday after the announcement that three staff members and 11 incarcerated people at the prison have become infected with the highly contagious respiratory illness.
Last week, state officials announced KCIW has been locked down by dormitory, and more than 200 staffers and 600 incarcerated people will be tested for the novel coronavirus. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky filed the suit seeking emergency relief on behalf of the women, saying such emergency relief may be the only way to prevent their sentences from becoming death sentences.
The petitioners in the lawsuit describe sharing a limited number of facilities in KCIW’s cramped living quarters. Beds are an arm’s length apart and dozens of people are sharing a handful of toilets, showers and sinks that are only cleaned once or twice daily, if at all. Safety measures like social distancing and mask-wearing are limited to certain areas and are not strictly enforced.
They allege incarcerated women at the prison are unable to practice recommended hygiene due to limited access to hand sanitizer and soap. The petitioners cannot practice basic social distancing and self-isolation measures, leaving them unable to protect themselves from a very real likelihood of serious illness or death from COVID-19 due to their medical conditions.
“There is a significant public health interest in releasing our clients to home incarceration,” said Heather Gatnarek, staff attorney at the ACLU of Kentucky. “We saw how quickly the coronavirus outbreak at Green River Correctional Complex turned deadly. Once coronavirus enters a prison, it spreads rapidly. Our clients are in grave danger.”
Corey Shapiro, legal director of the ACLU of Kentucky, said, “The constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment requires KCIW to address the exceptionally severe risks COVID-19 creates for our clients. An outbreak also puts the broader community in serious danger because prisons are not sealed environments. Hundreds of corrections officers, law enforcement officials and medical staff cycle in and out of numerous detention facilities and then move freely through their communities.”
The administration of Gov. Andy Beshear has not yet responded to a request for comment on the lawsuit.