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Federal appeals court stops earlier order, rules Texas doesn't have to give inmates hand sanitizer or face masks

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Texas Department of Criminal Justice William G. McConnell Unit at Chase Field in Beeville. Jennifer Whitney for The Texas Tribune

A federal appeals court has halted a lower judge’s order for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to provide hand sanitizer and face masks for inmates at a geriatric prison during the pandemic.

On Wednesday, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily blocked U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison’s order while it reviews the case. Older inmates at the Pack Unit sued the prison department in late March over its handling of the new coronavirus, arguing its pandemic policies were inadequate, and how they were being enacted at the unit was worse. This month, one inmate at the prison died hours after being taken to the hospital with difficulty breathing and was found to have the virus after his death.

The appeals court indicated that Ellison’s order was too far-reaching, noting that it gave great detail on cleaning practices to follow and went beyond prison guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The court said because TDCJ has taken protective measures, like restricting activities where there has been exposure, the inmates have not shown TDCJ has put them at an unconstitutional risk of danger.

The court’s order is temporary, and it said it will speed up its appeal review and place it on the next available calendar for arguments.

This is a developing story and will be updated.