Federal court orders Texas prison system to provide hand sanitizer for some geriatric inmates during pandemic

Tuesday’s ruling follows a nearly four-week long trial in a lawsuit filed in March by older inmates at a Texas prison whose population mostly consists of inmates over 65.                    Credit: Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune
Tuesday’s ruling follows a nearly four-week long trial in a lawsuit filed in March by older inmates at a Texas prison whose population mostly consists of inmates over 65. Credit: Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

A federal judge ordered the Texas prison system on Tuesday to provide more protective measures against the coronavirus, like hand sanitizer for wheelchair-bound prisoners, at a prison for geriatric inmates.

After a weekslong trial that started in July, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ruled that Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials acted with deliberate indifference toward the inmates’ medical needs and recklessly disregarded obvious health risks during the pandemic.

“The Court acknowledges that [TDCJ officials] have taken a number of steps to address the spread of COVID-19 … at the Pack Unit,” Ellison wrote in his ruling. “But the Court views these measures as the most basic steps that TDCJ could have taken to prevent mass death within the prison walls on an unimaginable scale. Designing a policy and implementing some of the measures therein does not automatically satisfy Defendants’ constitutional obligations, especially in the face of an unprecedented public health crisis.”

Ellison, who has slammed the state prison system in another lawsuit over heat conditions, said he was dubious that TDCJ was implementing many of the procedures and policies it claimed to be. He cited officials’ text messages that revealed a confusion about coronavirus reporting among officials, modifications made just before trial to make the unit “look more favorable,” and staged visits to the prison as explanation for his skepticism.

The ruling follows a nearly four-week long trial in a lawsuit filed in March by older inmates against TDCJ and the Pack Unit, a prison near College Station whose population mostly consists of inmates over 65. The department is expected to appeal the order to the same court that previously halted Ellison’s pretrial, temporary ruling against the department, in part because it said TDCJ was already making efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Texas has had more inmate deaths related to the coronavirus than any other prison system in the nation. Its death toll of at least 162 inmates outranks every other state as well as the federal prison system. More than 20 Texas prison employees have also died with the virus.

Nearly 23,000 inmates and about 4,800 employees have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic was declared a Texas public health disaster in March, according to TDCJ reports.

At the Pack Unit, more than 500 inmates had tested positive for the virus by August 2, and 20 had died with it, according to trial records. TDCJ’s public reports on inmate deaths only include 17 Pack Unit deaths as of Tuesday, the second most behind 20 reported deaths at the Duncan Unit in East Texas — another geriatric facility.