Supreme Court Denies Appeal From Louisiana Inmate Over Coronavirus

A tree blooms outside the Supreme Court in Washington on March 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court on Friday declined to lift a temporary stay on a federal judge’s order requiring a Louisiana prison to take steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The short order issued Friday evening keeps in place a Fifth Circuit stay of an injunction a Louisiana judge issued last month that required the B.B. Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie, Louisiana, to put together and implement social distancing and hygiene measures meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Christopher Marlowe, a prisoner at Rayburn who has diabetes, asked a federal judge in April to order his release due to threats posed to him by the virus. The request came as part of Marlowe’s long-running campaign challenging medical care and food he received while housed in Louisiana state prisons.

A federal judge denied Marlowe’s request for release, but ordered the prison to develop a plan for staff mask-wearing and social distancing in accordance with guidelines from the governor and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Fifth Circuit stayed the injunction on appeal and Marlowe asked the Supreme Court to lift the stay.

While the justices denied the request, the order from the Supreme Court on Friday notes Marlowe may still file “a grievance setting out specifically the relief he requests be provided to him in the prison, and in the event that such request is filed, it should be decided promptly.”

Marlowe argued to the Supreme Court that prison officials have not done enough to contain the spread of the virus. His dormitory houses 78 prisoners, who all sleep “within a few feet of one another,” and inmates share a shower and do not have access to hand sanitizer and towels.

Inmates wait in line “toe to heel” when in the cafeteria for meals and even though the prison has since limited seating so that inmates only sit in pairs at tables, Marlowe said he is still only three feet away from his fellow inmates.

Given his diabetes, Marlowe argued he is at substantial risk of complications if he were to contract the virus.

“Every day that the state refuses to implement appropriate hygiene and social distancing measures at Rayburn Correctional Center, as required by the district court’s injunction, applicant is at risk of irreparable harm,” Marlowe’s brief states.

The prison houses 12 inmates who are currently positive for Covid-19, while 10 others are in a step-down unit receiving treatment. Twenty-two other inmates who tested positive have recovered and five who tested positive have been released, according to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

The state officials argued the prison is taking action “to dynamically and reasonably respond” to the pandemic and has instituted additional controls. Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill also argues in the brief that the outbreak in the prison appears to have peaked.

Murrill, whose signature appears on the brief, also argues the trial court was out of line when it issued the injunction, as Marlowe’s request had nothing to do with the underlying litigation and granted him relief he never requested.

“The district court granted relief petitioner was [sic] neither requested in his operative complaint, nor his motion, mandating actions by individuals who have no connection with the facility where petitioner is currently housed and by some who do not even work for [the Department of Public Safety and Corrections] any longer,” the Louisiana prison system’s brief states.

New Orleans-based attorney Emily Posner, who represents Marlowe, did not immediately return a request for comment.

The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office also did not immediately return a request for comment on the decision.

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