Two older Texas inmates are suing the state's prison system for its handling of the new coronavirus pandemic.
The lawsuit, filed Monday, argues that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is failing to protect prisoners at the Pack Unit, a geriatric prison near College Station, from the potentially fatal virus. Some of the attorneys representing the inmates are the same ones who sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for allowing stifling temperatures at the same prison.
“Despite the ticking time bomb that COVID-19 represents, TDCJ has failed to implement necessary or even adequate policies and practices at the Pack Unit,” said the complaint, filed in a Houston federal court. “... In practice the situation is even worse, as TDCJ has failed to implement many of its own policies.”
The complaint asks U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison to provide all Pack Unit inmates unrestricted access to hand soap and disposable towels, access to hand sanitizer and enough supplies for hourly cleanings of common surfaces in housing areas, like phones and door handles. The lawsuit also requests strict social-distancing measures requiring at least 6 feet between people in group areas like the dining hall and recreation yards. The case was transferred Monday evening from another judge to Ellison, who also presides over the prison heat lawsuit and has issued scathing rulings against TDCJ.
TDCJ spokesperson Jeremy Desel said Monday the department has no comment on the lawsuit since it was being reviewed. He added that the prison system's coronavirus protocols are based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The health and wellbeing of TDCJ employees and contractors as well as the offenders in our custody is of utmost importance," Desel said in an emailed statement. "... As guidance from the CDC and state health officials evolves so do our practices."
COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, has killed tens of thousands of people worldwide, including at least 38 in Texas as of Sunday night. The effects it could have on prisons and jails — often incubators for disease due to unsanitary and crowded conditions — have caused prison reform advocates and local governments to push for the release of more inmates from behind bars. Some law enforcement groups, and Gov. Greg Abbott, have opposed the move, arguing it endangers public safety.
As of Monday, two Texas prisoners and seven employees at TDCJ had tested positive for the virus at various facilities throughout the state, according to the department. Hundreds of inmates were being restricted because of possible exposure.
Before cases were confirmed in the prisons last week, TDCJ began implementing preventive measures against the introduction and spread of the new coronavirus. The agency developed a new infectious disease control protocol, which focuses in part on education and disinfecting prison areas. Group activities like eating and recreation were being limited to smaller groups, the department said. And all prisoner visitation has been halted. So has almost all transportation of inmates, except for emergencies, officials said.
The court filing argues the new policies are not enough and that they aren't always being put into practice. It notes that while the CDC suggested relaxing prison restrictions on hand sanitizer, TDCJ has opted not to do that, though prisoners at one unit are manufacturing it. The two inmates also said the Pack Unit isn’t educating prisoners on symptoms and prevention, reducing gatherings, or reducing or restricting people's movement.
"The only known, effective measures to reduce the risk for vulnerable people of serious illness or death caused by COVID-19 are aggressive social distancing and heightened attention to hygiene and disinfection — measures that TDCJ is making impossible at the Pack Unit," the complaint, signed by attorney John Keville, said.
Jeff Edwards, the lead attorney in a lawsuit over prison heat that resulted in a settlement and installation of air conditioning at Pack, is also signed on to the lawsuit.
The two plaintiffs, 69-year-old Laddy Valentine and 73-year-old Richard King, have a heart condition and diabetes, respectively. The CDC has said older adults and anyone with serious underlying medical conditions, like lung disease, heart disease or diabetes, are at higher risk from COVID-19. The complaint said inmates at the Pack Unit are mostly older and/or have significant health issues.
The attorneys are requesting the lawsuit proceed as a class-action suit for all inmates at the Pack Unit. They've also asked for subclasses for those who are high-risk based on age or medical condition or who have a disability.