A district judge ordered that a Texas prison holding geriatric inmates provide unfettered access to hand soap, as well as hand sanitizer and masks after finding the prison population to be at “high risk of serious illness or death from exposure to COVID-19.”
Judge Keith Ellison also mandated in his preliminary injunction that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice present a comprehensive plan for testing inmates, and forbade the intake of new inmates into the prison, called the Pack Unit, for the duration of the pandemic.
Jeremy Desel, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s director of communications, told TPM that they are reviewing the decision, which was handed down in the Southern District of Texas’ Houston Division.
“It will be appealed,” he said.
For now at least, Michele Deitch, senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s law school and school of public affairs, considers the decision a “significant win” for inmate rights.
“Though there are legal actions across the country right now, this is one of the very few focused on conditions rather than asking for release,” she told TPM.
She conceded that what constitutes such an outstanding victory may seem like fairly “obvious” protective measures to those of us not behind bars.
“What’s so stunning is that there are so many correctional agencies that are not doing this most basic of stuff,” she said. “I mean, you need a lawsuit to tell people they can wash their hands? That’s what we’ve come to in this country: you need to sue to protect your most basic of rights.”
The lawsuit was originally brought by Laddy Curtis Valentine and Richard Elvin King, two inmates in the Pack Unit aged 69 and 73, respectively.
“While it has always been a matter of when, not if, COVID-19 hits the state’s prisons, that time is now,” the lawsuit said. Emphasizing the advanced age of most of the Pack Unit’s prison population, the lawsuit cautioned that the inmates are the type of people “most at risk” for illness or death from COVID-19.
“An outbreak at the Pack Unit could easily spread to the surrounding communities, and vice versa,” it said. “Time is running out for proper protections to be put into place.”
At least one Pack Unit inmate, Leonard Clerkly, died from pneumonia that the preliminary autopsy found resulted from COVID-19 infection.
While Deitch sees the preliminary injunction as a critical step, she said that it’s not enough to effectively quash the spread of the disease. Nonviolent offenders, those who are no longer a threat to society due to their age or illness and those only in jail because they can’t afford their bail should be let out to reduce the prison population, she said. Sanitizing measures like those mandated in the injunction should then be applied to what inmates remain.
“When you’re head-to-foot in a crowded room with people coughing, hand sanitizer is not gonna protect you,” she said.
Read the preliminary injunction here: