For more information on this case, please visit our friends at the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project

On April 20, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and the law firms Kairsy, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg, and Lin LLP and Dechert LLP filed a federal class action lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia and the Department of Prisons over the conditions of the city's four jails. Filed on behalf of ten people who are currently incarcerated and who are at heightened risk of becoming seriously ill from the disease COVID-19 if they contract the novel coronavirus, the lawsuit argues that the department has failed to implement guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent the spread of the virus.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs describe similar conditions across all four jails, including limited access to soap and cleaning supplies, no access to hand sanitizer, and housing arrangements that keep people within a few feet of each other.

The people who filed the lawsuit state in their complaint that housing arrangements in all four jails keep them in close proximity to others. In some institutions, people are housed in cells with another person; in others, they are held dormitory-style in rooms with 30-50 other people sleeping in bunk beds that are two-to-three feet apart. 

The plaintiffs report all being kept on lockdown for the last month, requiring the people who are incarcerated to spend nearly 24 hours a day in their cells or in the dorm-style rooms, sharing toilets and sinks that are not cleaned after each use and unable to physically distance from each other. The plaintiffs also state that they either are not being released from their cells or rooms on a daily basis or only being released for 15 to 20 minutes once or twice a day. When they are released, they must choose between showering and using the telephone. When they use the telephones, they are within two feet of other people, and the phones are not cleaned after each use.

The lawsuit is a class action on behalf of people currently detained and to be detained in the future in the city’s jails who are at heightened risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19 due to age, medical condition, or disability. The plaintiffs’ complaint states that the operations of the jails are in violation of their Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The plaintiffs are asking the federal district court to mandate the Department of Prisons to conform its operating practices with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If the department is unable to comply, the lawsuit asks the court to order the release of all people in the jails who are medically vulnerable. 

In June, the parties obtained a Consent Order. The Consent Order requires the Department of Prisons, among other things, to allow incarcerated people out-of-cell time and provide incarcerated people with free soap, cleaning supplies, and masks—basic necessities in order to protect themselves from infection. 

On May 14, 2021, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and co-counsel filed a motion of contempt after discovering that the Philadelphia Department of Prisons were operating under inhumane conditions that did not meet the court-ordered guidelines.


Hayden Nelson-Major, Ali Szemanski, Nyssa Taylor, and Witold Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania; Matthew Feldman and Su Ming Yeh of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project

Pro Bono Law Firm(s)

Jonathan Feinberg, Susan Lin, and David Rudovsky of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg, and Lin LLP; and Benjamin Barnett, Mary Kim, Theeya Musitief, Nicolas Novy, and Will Sachse of Dechert LLP

Date filed

April 20, 2020


United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania