COVID-19 and Civil Liberties

Ensuring 'We The People' Means All Of Us

COVID-19 has presented all of us with unprecedented challenges. It is as important as ever before that We the People includes all of us. This novel coronavirus does not discriminate, and it will not be defeated without deliberate collective action.

The ACLU and COVID-19

We are monitoring the actions of Kentucky's state and local officials to ensure they are taking actions that are based in science and do not infringe on the civil rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in Kentucky. We are currently working with public officials and other advocacy groups to ensure the health, safety, and civil liberties of all, especially the most vulnerable among us. Click on the subjects below to learn more about our COVID-19 response in different issue areas.

Learn about ACLU's national COVID-19 response

1. COVID-19 in Kentucky Jails and Prisons

A.COVID-19 in Kentucky Jails and Prisons


Kentucky's jails and prisons are a petri dish for COVID-19.

Incarcerated people and corrections officers have already tested positive in different jails and prisons throughout the Commonwealth. As of April 27, 2020, two Kentuckians incarcerated at the Green River Correctional Complex already lost their lives to this disease. Some facilities have acted on the recommendations of public health officials, but far too many people remain in danger. 

We have called on state and local officials to take several actions, and are pleased they have adopted the following recommendations: 

  • Decrease arrests
  • Pre-trial release (this has happened inconsistently at the local level)
  • Publication of COVID-19 Testing and Isolation Data in Prisons and Jails
  • Commutation of sentences for some people in state custody by Governor
  • Enhanced hygiene and sanitization procedures (many incarcerated people and corrections employees are still reporting dangerous conditions)

Officials must still take more actions to protect the health and safety of all Kentuckians:

  • Waive fines & fees
  • Compassionate release
  • Consideration of release
  • Waive phone call fees during suspension of in-person visitation (incarcerated people are currently allowed only one free call per week)
  • Further enhancement of hygiene & sanitization procedures
  • Reduction in incarceration for probation & parole supervision
  • All local officials must implement pre-trial release (these people are incarcerated only because they cannot afford to pay bail and are still presumed innocent)

ACLU-KY Actions:

  • March 30, 2020: Written recommendations to public officials from ACLU-KY Smart Justice Field Organizer Amanda Hall. Read here.
  • March 30, 2020: Coalition letter to Governor Andy Beshear with recommendations for making jails and prisons safer for incarcerated people and corrections employees. Read here.

  • April 1, 2020: Letter in response to incarcerated people placed in quarantine from ACLU-KY Legal Director Corey Shapiro. Read here.

  • April 21, 2020: Letter to Chief Justice John Minton, Jr., of the Supreme Court of Kentucky. Justice Minton ordered the release of some of the most vulnerable incarcerated people starting April 14, 2020. We requested that he write a second order allowing this policy to apply to people who became incarcerated before April 14, 2020. These people would have been released if only they had been charged before April 14, 2020. Read here.

  • April 29, 2020: Open records request to learn more about COVID-19 testing and infection risk in Kentucky jails and prisons. Read here.

  • May 3, 2020: Letter to Justice Mary C. Noble, Secretary of Kentucky Justice & Public Safety Cabinet, and Randy White, Acting Commissioner of Kentucky Department of Corrections, demanding the state protect the constitutional rights of incarcerated people to have access to legal counsel. Read here.

  • May 6, 2020: Open records request to learn about the race, gender, age, county of conviction, and convicted offense(s) of individuals released from Department of Corrections custody by the Governor due to COVID-19. Read here.

  • June 5, 2020: Letter to Justice Mary C. Noble, Secretary of Kentucky Justice & Public Safety Cabinet, and Randy White, Acting Commissioner of Kentucky Department of Corrections, demanding state officials test all incarcerated people for COVID-19 and release medically-vulnerable people or place them in home confinement until there is reliable treatment or a vaccine for COVID-19. Read the letter here. Read the June 12, 2020, response from state officials here.

  • June 15, 2020: We filed a lawsuit in federal court to protect medically vulnerable people at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women. Despite a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at Green River Correction Complex (a state prison), officials have ignored the warning signs of pending outbreaks in other facilities. We, along with other advocates, sounded the alarm for weeks, but state officials never took substantive action to protect incarcerated people, corrections employees, and the broader communities those employees call home. Learn more and read the lawsuit here.

  • June 10, 2020: We joined more than 30 other organizations and government officials to develop a resource guide for Kentuckians leaving incarceration. View the guide here.

  • June 16, 2020: We joined 32 other organizations and asked Secretary of Health and Family Services Eric Friedlander and Kentucky Department of Medicaid Commissioner Lisa Lee to make it easier for Kentuckians leaving incarceration to enroll in Medicaid by reducing administrative hurdles. This is more important than ever in the midst of a pandemic. Read the letter here.

  • August 18, 2020: The Court dismissed our case seeking to protect medically-vulnerable people incarcerated at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women. While the courts have failed these Kentuckians, Governor Beshear can do more to protect them. Click here to ask him to protect all incarcerated Kentuckians, corrections staff, and the communities those staff return to after work.

2. COVID-19 and Youth Detention

A.COVID-19 and Youth Detention


Kentucky's kids must be safe, no matter where they are.

Kentucky has taken steps to protect young people from COVID-19, such as closing schools, canceling events, and shifting to remote support services; however, one group has been left behind: the nearly 50,000 youth in custody in the United States.

We are calling on the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice to adopt the following measures:

  • Halt new admissions to detention and correctional facilities

  • Release youth from juvenile detention and correctional facilities

  • Ensure detained youth know have access healthcare, education, legal counsel, and unlimited free phone calls to family and support networks (visitation is suspended due to the pandemic)

  • Create transitional plans for youth released from custody, including  youth are connected with their school district to ensure they are enrolled back into their local school/online learning

  • Modify rules for youth on probation to reduce incarceration, increase access to healthcare, and allow for maximum social-distancing

  • Expand community-based programs for youth in the justice system by investing $5 million so that they are effectively supported in their communities

  • Address the economic instability caused by COVID-19 by implementing a moratorium, effective immediately, on the assessment and collection of all fines and fees

ACLU-KY Actions:

  • March 19, 2020: Letter to Juvenile Justice Commissioner LaShana Harris with recommendations to protect youth involved in the juvenile justice system. Read  here.

  • April 14, 2020: Letter to Juvenile Justice Commissioner LaShana Harris in response to temporary closure of the Jefferson Regional Juvenile Detention Center and the Department's response to the pandemic. Read here.

  • April 17, 2020: Response from Juvenile Justice Commissioner LaShana Harris. Read here.

3. Free, Fair, and Safe Elections

A.Free, Fair, and Safe Elections


The general election is on November 3, 2020, and all voters will be allowed to request a mail-in absentee ballot.

Register to vote by October 5

Request a mail-in ballot online by October 9

Do you have a past felony conviction? You may be eligible to vote! Learn more and find out if you are eligible here.

Free, Fair, and Safe Elections:

We worked closely with state elections officials and made recommendations that would allow all Kentuckians to safely and easily participate in the June 23, 2020, primary election. After helping secure an agreement for the primary, we filed a lawsuit demanding these safety measures be extended to the General Election on November 3, 2020, so no Kentuckian would be forced to choose between their health and right to vote.

We are pleased that most recommendations were adopted for the primary and general elections, including these provisions:


  1. allowing all eligible voters to cast a mail-in absentee ballot with no excuse
  2. offering early in-person voting before the election
  3. allowing elections workers to count ballots before and after the election
  4. providing pre-paid postage on all ballots so voters can return ballots free of charge
  5. ensuring all county clerks and poll workers are fully supported and staffed
  6. accepting all ballots that are post marked by election day


  1. 2–6 of above
  2. allowing all eligible voters to cast a mail-in absentee ballot if they are concerned about the risks of in-person voting posed by the pandemic
  3. allowing voters who do not have a valid photo ID to vote with other forms of ID and sign a form confirming they are who they say they are

Elections officials must also take these additional actions to make the election as free, fair, and safe as possible:

  • implement a robust voter education campaign so all voters know their options
  • ensure appropriate health safety measures are implemented at all in-person voting locations

ACLU-KY Actions:

  • March 30, 2020: Letter to State Board of Elections with recommendations for a free, fair, and safe primary election. Read here.

  • April 2, 2020: Letter to Governor Beshear, Secretary of State Michael Adams, and State Board of Election Chair Jared Dearing with further recommendations for a free, fair, and safe primary election. Read here.

  • May 27, 2020: We filed a lawsuit in federal court to ensure eligible voters can safely cast a ballot in the November general election. This lawsuit challenges Senate Bill 2, the Mandatory Voter Photo ID bill that is scheduled to become law. It also seeks to allow all voters to vote by mail in November. Read more about it here.

  • August 27, 2020: We filed a motion to dismiss our lawsuit after Secretary of State Adams, Governor Beshear, and the Board of Elections implemented emergency election procedures for the general election. The measures will allow any voter who does not comply with Kentucky's new voter ID law (Senate Bill 2) to cast a ballot. Voters without proper ID will be required to sign a form confirming their identity. They will also need to explain on the form that they do not have a proper ID because of DMV office closures due to the pandemic or fear of exposing themselves to the coronavirus in order to get an ID. The fact that officials had to change this rule highlights the absurdity and cruelty of passing Senate Bill 2 in April 2020, as the pandemic was ramping up. With the lawsuit over, we will move on to ensure the rules are enforced appropriately so every vote counts.

4. Abortion Care is Essential Care

A.Abortion Care is Essential Care


Abortion remains legal in Kentucky and you can still get an abortion in Kentucky. No government should ever have the authority to force a person to remain pregnant against their will.

Abortion is essential, time-sensitive healthcare. We're staying vigilant for attempts by anti-abortion politicians to use this crisis to infringe on reproductive freedom or curtail abortion access. The national ACLU has already blocked politicians in Alabama and Ohio from using the guise of the COVID-19 crisis to prevent people from obtaining abortion care, and we are committed to preserving abortion access for all Kentuckians.

House Bill 451 / Senate Bill 9

Governor Beshear vetoed Senate Bill 9, which was passed late at night in the final three hours of the session. SB 9, the bill for the so-called “protection of infants born alive during an abortion,” was amended in the House to add the provisions of House Bill 451. HB 451 would have taken oversight of abortion providers from career health experts at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, and permanently given it to the Office of the Attorney General. AG Cameron has made clear that if given this authority, he would shut down abortion providers during the ongoing COVID-19 state of emergency.

ACLU-KY Actions:

  • March 26, 2020: Lawmakers continued to advance legislation even though the Capitol was closed to the public due to the pandemic. We submitted written testimony in opposition to House Bill 451 to the Senate Judiciary Committee to defend reproductive freedom on the record. Read it here.

  • March 27, 2020: Attorney General Daniel Cameron attempted to ban abortion by asking Cabinet for Health and Family Services Acting Secretary Eric Friedlander to declare Kentucky’s abortion providers are violating a ban on elective medical procedures due to the pandemic. Trusted health organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have made clear, politicians should not push ‘COVID-19 responses that cancel or delay abortion procedures.’ It is a time-sensitive service for which a delay may increase the risks or potentially make it completely inaccessible. Everyone’s situation is different and it is critical that people be able to make their own decisions about continuing or ending a pregnancy. Read our response to AG Cameron here.
  • April 2020: We encouraged ACLU-KY members and supporters to contact the Governor and urge him to veto Senate Bill 9. We do expect this bill to be a top priority for lawmakers next year.
  • April 15, 2020: We wrote to Governor Beshear urging him to veto Senate Bill 9 to protect reproductive freedom. Read here.

  • April 24, 2020: Victory! Governor Beshear vetoed Senate Bill 9. Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 9 at the end of the legislative session and were not able to attempt to override the veto. We do expect this bill to be a top priority for lawmakers next year.

5. Protecting Immigrant Communities

A.Protecting Immigrant Communities


This pandemic affects all of us, regardless of immigration status.

People and their families must feel safe to leave their homes and seek medical care, or gather the necessary supplies to keep their families safe. Racist political attacks, like lawmakers' recent attempt to pass a family separation bill, push Kentuckians of color – regardless of immigration status – into the shadows. We can only stop this pandemic if all people feel safe seeking COVID-19 testing or treatment and gathering the necessary supplies to stay healthy at home.

Officials must release people in ICE detention.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement must release all people who are detained simply because they cannot afford to pay bail or because they do not have the proper documentation. No person should remain in a detention facility if their only offense is being in Kentucky without proper documentation. ICE detains people in a Boone County facility, as well as in county jails throughout the state. This senseless detention contributes to the overcrowding in Kentucky's jails and prisons. This puts detained people, corrections and ICE employees, and the communities those employees call home at grave risk of infection.

ACLU-KY Actions:

  • April 17, 2020: We sent a joint letter to the directors of Kentucky's ICE field offices urging them to release people in ICE custody who are at the ICE detention facility in Boone County or held under ICE orders in any other facilities in the commonwealth. Read the letters here and here.

  • July 22, 2020: We wrote to Kentucky's United States Senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, asking that immigrants, 19.8 million of whom are "essential workers," be included in all future relief packages. Read the letters here and here.

6. Contact Tracing

A.Contact Tracing


Contact tracing can help reduce the spread of the coronavirus, but poses threats to privacy and freedom of movement. These policies must be reviewed regularly to ensure they are as minimally restrictive and minimally invasive as possible. 

  • Read the national ACLU's white paper on technology-assisted contact tracing here.
  • Read about important lessons learned from past public health crises here.