Texas prisoners suing for soap, more cleaning and social distancing measures

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Two Texas inmates have filed a lawsuit demanding more access to hand sanitizer, soap and increased social distancing measures in state prisons.

The lawsuit alleges that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has failed to “take proper measures to prevent transmission of COVID-19 to some of its most vulnerable inmates.”

The lawsuit acknowledges TDCJ has implemented certain policies to fight the spread of COVID-19 but calls the measures “woefully inadequate.”

“TDCJ’s failures don’t just affect the inmates. Prison health is community health,” the lawsuit reads. “An outbreak at the Pack Unit could easily spread to the surrounding communities, and vice versa. Time is running out for proper protections to be put into place.”

The plaintiffs in the suit are both elderly inmates, housed in the Wallace Pack Unit in Grimes County. The Pack Unit is classified as a Type-I Geriatric according to the TDCJ’s online directory.

According to the lawsuit, the facility houses “sick, elderly prisoners in conditions likely to spread the virus.” The lawsuit cites numbers from September 2014 about inmates housed at the unit:

  • 728 men with high blood pressure
  • 212 men with diabetes
  • 142 men with coronary artery disease
  • 188 men over the age of 65

Both plaintiffs argue they suffer from disabilities — diabetes and hypertension, respectively — putting them more at risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

The lawsuit names the executive director of TDCJ, the warden of the unit, and the entire state prison system as defendants.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs are seeking a temporary restraining order “to protect their health, safety, and well-being in accordance with their constitutionally guaranteed Eighth Amendment rights.” The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. 

The plaintiffs are demanding the following health and safety measures from TDCJ:

  • Provide unrestricted access to antibacterial hand soap and disposable hand towels
  • Provide hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol
  • Provide cleaning supplies for each housing area, including bleach-based cleaning agents
  • Require common surfaces in housing areas to be cleaned hourly with bleach-based cleaning agents, including tabletops, telephones, door handles and restroom fixtures
  • Increase regular cleaning and disinfecting of all common areas and surfaces, including common-use items such as television remote controls, books and gym and sports equipment
  • Institute a prohibition on new prisoners entering the Pack Unit for the duration of the pandemic or test all new prisoners entering the Pack Unit for COVID-19
  • Implement and enforce strict social-distancing measures requiring at least six feet of distance between all individuals in all locations where inmates are required to congregate, including, but not limited to, the cafeteria line, the chow hall, all recreation rooms, during required counting and in the pill line
  • Post signage and information in common areas that provides general updates and information about the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC’s recommendations on “How To Protect Yourself” from contracting COVID-19 and instructions on how to properly wash hands

A spokesperson for TDCJ said they had no comment on this specific lawsuit at this time, except that it was under review.

“The health and wellbeing of TDCJ employees and contractors as well as the offenders in our custody is of utmost importance. TDCJ is working in close contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Texas State Health officials,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson also said they have “increased the amount of soap distributed to offenders and available to staff as well as increased disinfectant cleaning of all touch areas of buildings across the system” for the last several weeks.

They said hand sanitizer would not be distributed to offenders because of “security concerns.”

The spokesperson also said, “Posters instructing offenders and staff of proper hand hygiene and COVID-19 specific watch items have been posted for weeks.”

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that they’ve observed TDCJ “neglecting to even follow many of its own policies,” such as the posting of educational signs and other precautions to limit inmate conduct.

Inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit have filed litigation against the facility before. In 2014, they sued over the lack of air conditioning in the unit’s living quarters. In 2018, a judge approved a settlement agreement where TDCJ would provide air conditioning for the entire unit.

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