The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against Tuscaloosa County Sheriff Ron Abernathy Monday alleging that Abernathy has violated the Alabama Open Records Act by withholding information about the spread of COVID-19 in the Tuscaloosa County Jail.

In a 13-page complaint filed Monday, attorneys for the SPLC said they have been requesting documents and information about transmission of the coronavirus in the Tuscaloosa County Jail since Abernathy reported an outbreak there in May of this year.

At the time, Abernathy said at least 21 prisoners and one staff member had tested positive for COVID-19. The SPLC says the sheriff has been tight-lipped about the virus in the jail since then and has also ignored multiple public records requesting more information about its spread.

"Since the May 2020 outbreak, [Abernathy] has released little information regarding testing numbers or related COVID procedures to the public," the SPLC said in their lawsuit. "[Abernathy] also has not released information about how employees of the Jail are tested and what policies, if any, are in place to prevent spread from staff into the community."

The nonprofit legal advocacy organization also makes the alarming claim that there was a major outbreak of the virus in September of which the public was never made aware.

"On information and belief, an outbreak of 100 or more persons in the Jail occurred in September 2020," the lawsuit read. "There are no public reports regarding this outbreak or the steps taken to limit the risk to the people working or incarcerated within the jail, or the public at large."

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According to the lawsuit, the SPLC sent Abernathy a public records request on July 31st asking for broad information detailing the number of persons housed in the county jail or employed by the sheriff's office who have tested positive for COVID-19. The SPLC also requested all records concerning housing and cell assignment changes made to prevent the spread of the virus throughout the jail.

The SPLC says Abernathy never responded, even as they followed up on August 5th, August 20th, September 10th and September 24th.

The SPLC is asking Circuit Judge John Henry England, Jr. to declare the requested records as subject to disclosure and to compel Abernathy to produce and release them.

Alex Jordan, one of the attorneys representing the SPLC, said in a press release that Abernathy is putting lives in danger by withholding the information sought.

“Many people, accused of committing only misdemeanor offenses, are sitting in the Tuscaloosa County jail simply because they cannot afford to pay for their release, putting their health and well-being at-risk,” Jordan said. “Sheriff Abernathy is choosing to withhold essential information that would allow incarcerated people, jail staff, justice system stakeholders and the public to protect themselves from this virus that has proven to be deadly in some cases.”

Abernathy could not be immediately reached for comment Monday afternoon.

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