Opinions and Legal Insights

Texas Inmates Secure New COVID-19 Safety Measures Through Class Action

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) must implement new safety measures in the state’s Wallace Pack Unit, a type-1 geriatric prison, according to a recent ruling from a federal judge which found that prisoners’ constitutional rights were violated by existing standards. In the ruling, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas found that the TDCJ failed to implement a plan to protect inmates and slow the spread of COVID-19 within the prison. The court also found that the TDCJ recklessly disregarded the known health risk COVID-19 posed, thus, demonstrating deliberate indifference to disabled inmates’ medical needs.

COVID-19 Mismanagement

In March 2020, two inmates at the TDCJ’s Wallace Pack Unit sued the department, alleging violations of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). In their lawsuit, the inmates claimed that the prison’s cleaning routine wasn’t sufficient to protect inmates from contracting COVID-19. They identified several specific situations they saw as deficient, such as a failure to test all inmates for the virus, the use of defective tests, and inadequate social distancing and handwashing rules given the prison’s population. Inmates with mobility restrictions also claimed that their rights under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act had been violated by the prison’s approach to COVID-19. The court certified two classes of inmates for the purposes of the lawsuit. The first was a general class of inmates, and the second was a sub-class of inmates whose medical conditions qualified them for protection under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.

In its ruling, the court held that the TDCJ must make several changes to its practices regarding COVID-19 protection. For example, the department must provide unrestricted access to hand soap and clean towels for inmate use. Hand sanitizer must also be provided to inmates whose mobility impairments prevent them from making frequent trips to a sink. The court further ordered the TDCJ to enforce social distancing rules, require staff to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), and supply adequate cleaning supplies, gloves, and masks.

Predictions for Future COVID-19 Rulings

Prison populations have proven particularly vulnerable to coronavirus outbreaks. Inmates often live in close quarters and may spend their entire days indoors, often in buildings with crowded common areas and poor ventilation. Over 138,000 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in U.S. prisons by late September 2020, with Texas counting the highest number of prison infections of any state. When tabulating per capita, Arkansas and Tennessee take the lead for incarcerated cases.

Currently, several cases are pending in state and federal courts regarding the treatment of prison inmates and guards in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. These include cases filed by medically frail inmates in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Illinois, among others. The ACLU of Connecticut has also filed a class action federal lawsuit on behalf of the state’s prison population.

In many of these cases, plaintiffs claim that their Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel or unusual punishment is being violated by the prison’s approach to COVID-19. The applicable “deliberate indifference” standard, articulated in Farmer v. Brennan, requires more than a mere showing that COVID-19 entered the prison population, however.

The district court ruling against the TDCJ provides valuable precedent for cases proceeding in Texas. It also provides a roadmap and support for cases proceeding in other state or federal courts. Judge Keith P. Ellison, writing for the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas, provided a thoroughly-detailed opinion that can provide insight for plaintiffs and their counsel into how to build a convincing case.

Demand for Expert Witnesses in COVID-19 Prison Claims

As in other claims involving COVID-19 response, the case against the TDCJ focuses heavily on what prison officials knew about the coronavirus, how they responded to it within the prison, and what they communicated to the public. All of these points are issues on which a qualified expert witness can help clarify key details.

For example, epidemiologists remain in high demand as expert witnesses due to their ability to explain how viruses spread and opine on the effectiveness of particular measures within an institution like a prison. Experts on prison management or practices may also help paint a clear picture of how COVID-19 spreads or may be contained within a prison complex. As these cases continue to unfold, so will our understanding of appropriate COVID-19 safety measures among incarcerated populations and the experts necessary to opine on these circumstances.

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