Federal appeals court temporarily halts order to give some Texas geriatric inmates hand sanitizer

Birds fly overhead at the Hilltop prison unit in Gatesville, Texas. Credit: Angela Piazza for The Texas Tribune

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A federal appeals court has temporarily blocked a lower court’s order that would require Texas to provide more protective measures against the coronavirus at a geriatric prison, like giving hand sanitizer to inmates who use wheelchairs.

The order from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday temporarily halts the district judge’s ruling from last month, while it considers the case on its merits. The order is the latest development in a lawsuit filed in March by two older inmates at the Pack Unit who argued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s policies and practices did not adequately protect them in the pandemic.

As of Tuesday, at least 162 Texas prisoners had died from the coronavirus, according to TDCJ reports, more than any other prison system in the United States, including the federal system. Two dozen Texas prison employees have also died with the virus. More than 23,000 inmates and nearly 4,900 employees have tested positive for the virus.

At the Pack Unit near College Station, more than 500 inmates had tested positive for the virus as of Aug. 2, and 20 had died with it, according to court records.

After a weekslong trial that started in July, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison ruled late last month that TDCJ officials acted with deliberate indifference toward the inmates’ medical needs and recklessly disregarded obvious health risks during the pandemic. Along with measures that have since reportedly been implemented by the prison since the lawsuit was filed, like providing unrestricted access to soap and water, Ellison ordered the prison to provide hand sanitizer to inmates who use a walker, a cane, crutches or a wheelchair.

The order was set to go into effect on Oct. 14. TDCJ appealed the ruling, having argued that it had many protective measures in place already, and hand sanitizer could be used to drink or start fires. Inmates’ attorneys said the concerns were “disingenuous,” as fires are not a problem at the prison and inmates have plenty of other flammable material, like paper.