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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Elderly Texas Prisoners Can Be Denied Soap And Hand Sanitizer, Court Rules

Topline

A federal appeals court has ruled against two Texas prisoners who had asked for more protective measures against the spread of Covid-19, including access to hand sanitizer, with the court ruling that a global pandemic is not sufficient ground to bring the lawsuit.

Key Facts

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled against Lady Valentine and Richard King, both of whom are prisoners over the age of 65 with serious health conditions at the Wallace Pack Unit prison.

The prisoners argued that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has not been doing enough to protect inmates at a geriatric prison during the coronavirus pandemic.

The plaintiffs said that no hand sanitizer was available for inmates, soap was limited, sinks were broken and prison staff regularly eschewed mask-wearing policies—facts that the judges affirmed in the ruling.

But the judges said that a lawsuit was “premature” since the plaintiffs hadn’t exhausted the prison system’s grievance process, even though lawyers for the plaintiffs have said that process could take so long the inmates might die first.

The judges said that argument isn’t strong enough to bypass the grievance procedure, ruling “special circumstances—even threats caused by global pandemics—do not matter.”

Tuesday’s ruling was not a final say in the case—it granted a permanent injunction filed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice while it formally appeals the decision of a lower federal court, which ruled against the state.

Crucial Quote

“TDCJ could have done more to protect vulnerable inmates in the Pack Unit. But federal judges are not policymakers,” the judges said in their ruling.

Key Background

Prisons are among the settings that present the highest risk for becoming coronavirus hot spots. The Wallace Pack Unit is exceptionally high risk, given that it houses “geriatric, medically compromised, and mobility-impaired inmates.” Valentine and King filed the lawsuit in March, leading to a weekslong trial at the District Court level that ruled in their favor. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has argued that effective protective measures are in place at the Wallace Pack Unit, while also saying that the inmates there might drink hand sanitizer due to its alcohol content or use it to start fires at the prison.

Big Number

161. That’s how many inmates have died in the Texas prison system, including more than 20 at the Wallace Pack Unit. The Texas prison system has more deaths than any prison system in the U.S., including the entire federal prison system.

Tangent

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) says that restrictive measures in the state have significantly slowed the spread of coronavirus. As a result, Abbott is allowing bars in Texas to reopen at 50% capacity starting on Wednesday. New cases and deaths have remained stable over the past few days in Texas, but coronavirus hospitalizations are ticking up.

Further Reading

Federal appeals court says Texas doesn’t have to give geriatric inmates hand sanitizer for now (Texas Tribune)

Bars Will Be Allowed To Reopen In Texas, Gov. Abbott Says (Forbes)

Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus

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