Court: Texas doesn’t have to give geriatric inmates hand sanitizer

By Jolie McCullough, Texas Tribune

A federal appeals court has ruled that, at least for now, Texas does not have to provide more protective measures, like giving hand sanitizer to inmates who use wheelchairs against the coronavirus, at a geriatric prison.

The order from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday temporarily halts a district judge’s ruling from last month while it considers the case on its merits. A more permanent ruling, which could allow or reject the lower judge’s order, will be issued later. Wednesday’s ruling 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 after contracting the coronavirus. 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 requiring 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.