The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to reinstate a District Court order requiring Texas prison officials to enact basic safety precautions for the coronavirus. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from this decision with Justice Elena Kagan joining.
The case was filed by two inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit, a geriatric prison in Texas. Laddy Valentine and Richard King are 69 and 73 years old, respectively, and suffer from chronic health conditions that put them at higher risk of serious illness from the coronavirus. Valentine and King argue that failure to protect them from the virus constitutes a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Sotomayor called the prison a “tinderbox for COVID-19” and said that “[t]hese inmates are some of the most vulnerable in the country to the current pandemic.”
The US District Court for the Southern District of Texas initially ruled for the inmates, requiring the prison to take basic precautions “such as regular cleaning, wearing masks, weekly testing, quarantining inmates who are waiting for test results, and contact tracing.” The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided to stop that order until they could hear the case. They ruled that prison officials were likely to prevail in the case because the inmates did not use the prison’s internal grievance procedure before going to court.
Sotomayor argued that even though internal grievance procedures are on the books, they are not “available” if, practically, they operate as a “dead end.” Additionally, Sotomayor argued that the precautions ordered by the District Court would not interfere with prison officials’ ability to manage the prison. She noted, Valentine and King may return to the Supreme Court “if it becomes clear that the risks they face as a result of [prison officials’] conduct are even graver than they already appear.”
The Supreme Court blocked a similar order relating to the Wallace Pack Unit in May before the District Court trial took place. Sotomayor and the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented from that decision as well.