The U.S. Supreme Court granted an appeal Wednesday that halts an order requiring social distancing, among other coronavirus protections, for inmates at Orange County jails in California.
The emergency appeal put on hold an injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal in May, which required Orange County jails to allow inmates to social distance, and to provide them with COVID-19 tests and cleaning supplies, The New York Times reported.
Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito Jr., Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to grant the appeal. Liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer dissented.
Orange County officials wrote in a request to stop the mandate that half of the inmates had already been released and there was “currently zero transmission” of the coronavirus in the jail system.
“The district court’s injunction seizes the role of administration of the jail, prevents nimble responses to the virus in an ever-changing landscape and puts focus on compliance with the order and avoiding contempt, rather than squarely on combating the contagion,” the officials wrote.
The American Civil Liberties Union, representing the county’s detainees, wrote that more than 300 people have already tested positive for COVID-19 and were “packed into day rooms sharing the same air and bathrooms without social distancing.” The ACLU added that inmates were given “watered-down disinfectant” and “make-shift masks made from blood-stained sheets.”
“This court normally does not reward bad behavior, and certainly not with extraordinary equitable relief,” Sotomayor wrote in the dissent. “Despite knowing the severe threat posed by COVID–19 and contrary to its own apparent policies, the jail exposed its inmates to significant risks from a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease.”
As many as 17,600 inmates may be released early statewide due to the pandemic, California prison officials said, according to The Associated Press. That figure is 70 percent more than originally estimated.
More than 4.8 million coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the U.S. and more than 158,000 people have died as of Aug. 6, according to Johns Hopkins University.