The Supreme Court on Monday denied a request from inmates in a geriatric prison in Texas to allow further protections from Covid-19.
It is the latest example of the high court deferring to the opinion of state and local officials as they work to combat the pandemic, and comes as Covid-19 is rapidly spreading nationwide.
The court’s order was unsigned, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, dissented, arguing that the prisoners face “severe risks of serious illness and death from Covid-19, but are unable to take even the most basic precautions against the virus.”
“The inmates can do nothing but wait for the virus to take its toll,” Sotomayor wrote, noting that 20 lives have already been lost. She said she feared they will be subject to “further, needless suffering.”
Lawyers for the lead plaintiffs in the case, Laddy Valentine and Richard King, told the justices that the elderly inmates in the a Grimes County geriatric prison filed suit because of officials “deliberately indifferent response” to the spread of Covid alleging that current conditions resulted in “intolerable and patently unconstitutional prison conditions.”
A district court ruled in their favor, specifying “reasonable actions” the prison could take based in part on trial testimony from public health experts. But a federal appeals court put that opinion on hold. Lawyers for the inmates asked the Supreme Court to lift the hold, but the justices declined to do so.
Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins argued in court papers that the prison has taken precautions including “repeated mass testing of inmates” and that the number of infections at the Pack Unit has “fallen dramatically.”
Hawkins said that the district court lacked the power to enter an injunction against the prison because the inmates had failed to exhaust available internal avenues for relief. In addition, he stressed that the prison had formulated a “system-wide” Covid-19 response policy that included providing masks to each inmates, creating a social distancing plan and imposing a precautionary lockdown.