Texas Geriatric Prison Ravaged by Virus Dodges Injunction

People hold up a banner while listening to a news conference outside San Quentin State Prison in California on July 9. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to force implementation of Covid-19 safety protocols at a geriatric prison in Texas.

An 11-page dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor this afternoon details that since April, when Covid-19 was first detected in the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota, more than 500 inmates there have contracted Covid-19. Of this group, 20 have died — representing 12% of the total deaths in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison system.

A Texas federal judge ordered the unit to implement safety protocols, which included a regular cleaning of common surfaces, unrestricted access to hand soap and quarantining inmates who were awaiting results of Covid-19 tests. Sotomayor notes that the injunction came after an 18-day trial where the court learned that inmates were responsible for cleaning their own dormitory-style living quarters without additional safety gear, surrounded by staff frequently refused to wear masks.

Communal showers shared with dorms in varying locations throughout the prison were not cleaned in between use. Dorm structure also makes it impossible for inmates to stand 6 feet apart, as recommended by health experts. The inmates sit shoulder to shoulder when waiting for a shower to use. 

While the state appeals, however, the Fifth Circuit entered a stay that lets the prison hold off on implementing virus-safety measures.

Writing for a three-judge panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Don Willett found that the inmate challengers Laddy Valentine and Richard King failed to exhaust administrative remedies before seeking relief in court.

As for the state’s response, Willet said it, “albeit imperfect, did not amount to deliberate indifference under the Eight Amendment.”

“The district court lamented that TDCJ’s grievance process was lengthy and unlikely to provide necessary Covid-19 relief,” Willett wrote, using an abbreviation for Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “By all accounts, the process was suboptimal. But it was available, and plaintiffs were required to exhaust it before bringing this suit.”

Sotomayor dissented Monday alongside Justice Elena Kagan after the Supreme Court refused to lift the stay. They wrote that the Fifth Circuit “demonstrably erred” on several issues. For one, a 160-day review process for grievances was not efficient enough while Covid-19 infections surged. 

In only 116 days, 19 inmates died at the Pack Unit, while 74 had been hospitalized due to the severity of their illness, according to the dissent. One inmate, Alvin Norris, died before the Pack Unit took any proactive measures to suppress Covid-19 infections. 

“Contrary to the Fifth Circuit’s analysis, consideration of ‘the real-world workings of prison grievance systems’ is central to assessing whether a process makes administrative remedies available,” Sotomayor wrote. “When this suit was filed, the Pack Unit’s process plainly did not. As the District Court put it, the PLRA ‘cannot be understood as prohibiting judicial relief while inmates are dying.’”

Unconstitutional prison conditions under the Eighth Amendment must be proven to show a risk of serious harm to an inmate, while also being found to be implemented with deliberate indifference, Sotomayor wrote. This is what prison officials did in this case, she added. Not only were the dangers of Covid-19 well-documented, but the district court found officials to be aware of risk to inmates, “because they were obvious.”

“If the prison fails to enforce social distancing and mask wearing, perform regular testing, and take other essential steps, the inmates can do nothing but wait for the virus to take its toll,” Sotomayor wrote. “Twenty lives have been lost already. I fear the stay will lead to further, needless suffering.”

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