The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all D.C. residents, and it will take all of us working together to respond appropriately, effectively, and fairly. The ACLU-DC is monitoring the situation closely to ensure our government's response is scientifically justified and no more intrusive upon civil liberties than absolutely necessary. Above all, the ACLU-DC believes:
- Any coronavirus response must be grounded in science and public health, and not partisan politics
- Any response plan must protect the health, safety, and civil liberties of all
- D.C. leaders must not enforce the Mayor's Stay-at-Home order in ways that further create harm, such as through the use of arrests, criminal penalties, or excessive civil fines that disproportionately impact those who can least afford it
- To limit the transmission of coronavirus, our leaders must pay attention to vulnerable populations, including homeless and low-income residents, those in the criminal legal system, people with disabilities, and immigrants
We are actively working with local partners and D.C. officials to craft and advocate for sound policies that are effective, equitable, and protect the civil rights and civil liberties of all District residents.
Here you will find information about the ACLU-DC’s response, including letters to D.C. public officials, litigation updates, public statements, and other resources:
Criminal Legal System
Without immediate action, D.C.'s jail and halfway houses could become hotspots of the pandemic. People in jail, prisons, and halfway houses are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses. These facilities are not equipped to prevent the spread of COVID-19, jeopardizing the lives of those detained and endangering law enforcement officers and medical staff. This then increases the spread of the virus into the community and risks overwhelming the District’s health care system. We are demanding that District and federal government officials take immediate steps to drastically reduce the number of people in custody at the D.C. Jail, the Central Treatment Facility, and at halfway houses, and to take additional safety measures across the system to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Banks v. Booth
On March 30, 2020, the ACLU-DC and the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia filed a class action lawsuit against the D.C. Department of Corrections for its flagrant disregard of basic public health measures to limit the spread and severity of a COVID-19 outbreak inside the D.C. Jail. The case seeks immediate relief for unconstitutional conditions for all 1,600-plus individuals housed at the jail and its adjacent custodial treatment facility. Learn more about the case here >>
Williams v. Federal Bureau of Prisons
With the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the law firm of Latham & Watkins, the ACLU-DC sued the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the D.C. Department of Corrections, and Hope Village on behalf of two people detained at the Hope Village Halfway House. The lawsuit charges the defendants failed to take even the most basic measures to protect them from the COVID-19 virus. The plaintiffs seek the release of many residents to home confinement to reduce the population at Hope Village, and the implementation of social distancing and infection control measures consistent with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and D.C. government. Learn more about the case here >>
- In collaboration with partners including the Free Minds Book Club, Public Defender Service, Children's Law Center, Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, Justice Policy Initiative, and the Sentencing Project, the ACLU-DC signed on to this letter and recommendations to Mayor Bowser and other local and federal officials urging them to take urgent steps to decrease the incarcerated populations at the D.C. Jail and Bureau of Prisons facilities. The first letter and recommendations were sent on March 26. The second letter with updated recommendations was sent on May 18.
Federal Stimulus Funding and D.C. Statehood
In late March, President Trump and Congress shortchanged D.C. by nearly $750 million by treating our nation's capital as a territory instead of a state when they passed the $2 trilliong CARES Act. Despite the fact that D.C. has more COVID-19 cases than 17 other states, we will have less funding for first responders, small businesses, and for testing and treatment at local hospitals. We are working with the national ACLU and local Statehood partners to lobby Congress to treat D.C. as a state in future stimulus bills.
The coronavirus crisis has led to extended school closures in the District through the end of the school year, disrupting the lives of students and families and widening the achievement gap that disproportionately impacts D.C.’s low-income Black and Latinx students and students with disabilities. D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee has estimated that about 30 percent of students (roughly 28,000 students) lack access to a computer, tablet, or internet connection at home. The ACLU-DC is working with community partners to help close this gap by pushing for equitable distribution of resources and support for students and parents, including to online distance learning, and by working to ensure that student right to privacy is protected with the use of digital learning devices and platforms.
- The ACLU-DC signed onto a joint letter in collaboration with the Every Student, Every Day coalition to urge Mayor Bowser and D.C. Council Chairperson Phil Mendelson to ensure disadvantaged students and those from low-income households are provided the technology, tools, and services needed to continue their education during the COVID-19 disruption. See the letter here >>
- DCPS has since distributed 16,000 laptops and 10,000 wifi hotspots to students in need. See the Chancellor's letter >>
No one should have to choose between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote. It is now even more critical that we make it as easy as possible for all eligible voters to vote by mail in 2020, and prepare for a likely surge in absentee ballots. In response to the current public health emergency, the D.C. Board of Elections has announced a Vote Safe DC campaign, which includes expanding the number of early voting centers and encouraging vote by mail to protect the health and safety of the public and poll workers for the June 2 primary and June 16 special election in Ward 2. The ACLU-DC is committed to working with local partners, the D.C. Board of Elections, and policymakers to ensure D.C. takes all necessary steps to reduce the risk of disenfranchisement by broadening access to voting by mail and ramping up public education to ensure all DC voters have access to the ballot.
- Along with local groups including 350DC, League of Women Voters DC and more than dozen Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, we signed onto this letter asking Mayor Bowser, the D.C. Council, and Board of Elections to take concrete steps to ensure safe, fair, and accessible elections this year. See the letter here >>
While all D.C. residents are at risk, history has shown that in times like these, it is often the most vulnerable members of society who are further disenfranchised economically and whose civil rights and civil liberties are violated. The ACLU-DC will monitor the government’s response and work with local partners to advocate for budget and policy decisions that defend the rights and prioritize the needs of those who are most affected and harmed by the current crisis, including our homeless and housing-unstable neighbors, our low-income families with students who lack access to a meaningful education, our immigrant communities who are vulnerable to ICE enforcement activities, our returning citizens, and D.C. residents with pre-existing health issues and disabilities.
Costa v. Bazon
On April 16, we amended our complaint in an existing lawsuit with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the law firm of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer against the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health to add a challenge to the unconstitutional conditions at St. Elizabeths, D.C.'s only public psychiatric hospital, for its lack of emergency preparedness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the charges: symptomatic patients at St. Elizabeths are not tested at all, or not tested in a timely matter, and they are not medically isolated from other patients who reside in their unit; known or suspected cases of COVID-19 have generally not been transferred to other facilities where they can receive appropriate treatment; and patients who test positive for COVID-19 are not quarantined from other patients. By the time the suit was amended, four patients had died, and 32 patients and 47 staff at the Hospital had tested positive for the coronavirus. Learn more about the case here >>
- In collaboration with other local organizations including Jews United for Justice, DC Jobs with Justice, D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, Bread for the City, and Empower DC, the ACLU-DC signed onto this lettter asking Mayor Bowser and the D.C. Council to take urgent legislative action to assure the health and safety of D.C.'s most vulnerable. See the letter here >>
Privacy and Surveillance
The Community Oversight of Surveillance Coalition D.C., a broad coalition of local and national organizations adovocating for greater transparency in the acquisition and use of surveillance technologies, sent a letter of concern to Mayor Bowser and the D.C. Council about the D.C. government's pursuit of a digital contact tracing tool to asssist manual contact tracing efforts. The letter urges officials to use a tool that is designed in a privacy-protective and inclusive manner. See the letter here >>
How You Can Help
- Help share our advocacy efforts on social media. You can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram
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- Sign up to volunteer to learn about more opportunities to get involved
- Donate to ensure we can continue to respond flexibly to this crisis