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Supreme Court denies Texas inmates’ appeal in case over COVID-19 protections

The rising sun shines over the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday morning, May 11, 2020. (AP Photos/Mark Sherman)
The rising sun shines over the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday morning, May 11, 2020. (AP Photos/Mark Sherman)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Thursday denied the request of two inmates to require a Texas prison to provide more safeguards against COVID-19 contamination.

The prisoners -- Laddy Valentine, 69, and Richard King, 73 -- filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of disabled and high-risk inmates against a geriatric prison in Grimes County, Texas, arguing it was violating their constitutional rights barring cruel and unusual treatment. One inmate, Leonard Clerkly, died last month of COVID-19 related complications.

A district court ruled in their favor, ordering the prison to take up an extensive list of measures including providing unrestricted access to hand soap and hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol in public areas. In addition, the prison was to educate and inform inmates about the pandemic and provide a detailed plan to test all inmates in the unit. The court also ordered extensive cleaning and disinfecting protocols.

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"The government has a constitutional duty to protect those it detains from conditions of confinement that create a substantial risk of serious harm," United States District Judge Keith P. Ellison held last month.

A federal appeals court put the order on hold, pending appeal, finding that the requirements go further than Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. A panel of judges said that there is "no doubt" that infectious diseases pose a risk of "serious or fatal harm" to prison inmates. But it said that many of the protective measures the prison had already taken match what the district court ordered.

The prisoners asked the Supreme Court to step in to reinstate the district court order and the justices declined to do so Thursday night.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote separately to say they agreed with the court's ultimate decision for now but highlighted issues they found "disturbing" in the case and said they took solace in the fact that the lower courts will require a report every 10 days on the status of the inmates in the prison's care as the appeal plays out.

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“As the circumstances of this case make clear, the stakes could not be higher,” Sotomayor wrote. “Just a few nights ago, respondents revealed that numerous inmates and staff members at the Pack Unit are now COVID-19 positive and the vast majority of those tested positive within the past two weeks.”

Sotomayor ended the statement with a broader appeal.

"It has long been said that a society's worth can be judged by taking stock of its prisons. That is all the truer in this pandemic, where inmates everywhere have been rendered vulnerable and often powerless to protect themselves from harm. May we hope that our country's facilities serve as models rather than cautionary tales," she said.

In court briefs, Texas had argued that its Department of Criminal Justice had worked "diligently" to protect its prisons from the coronavirus pandemic.

"Much of the relief plaintiffs sought involved safety measures already in place," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told the Supreme Court. He pointed out that Valentine is serving a 25-year sentence for child sexual abuse, indecent child contact and several counts of sexual assault and King is serving a life sentence for multiple murders committed in 1989. They are housed at Wallace Pack Unit, a geriatric prison that houses 1,248 inmates, 827 of whom are 65 and over.

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“Plaintiffs have not shown any irreparable harm because there is no evidence that TDCJ’s COVID-19 measures are inadequate, nor is there any evidence that the district court’s laundry list of commands will protect them any better than what Defendants are already doing,” Paxton wrote.