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Fifth Circuit Overturns Permanent Injunction Requiring Texas Prison to Observe COVID-19 Precautions

by Matt Clarke

On March 26, 2021, the Fifth Circuit court of appeals overturned a permanent injunction that required a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) prison to observe certain precautions against the spread of COVID-19.

Laddie Valentine and Richard King are state prisoners incarcerated at a TDCJ geriatric prison, the Wallace Pack Unit. The 1,132 prisoners incarcerated there include 800 who are over the age of 65, 49 who are wheelchair-bound, and 87 who use walkers. Many of them have serious medical conditions. All live in tiny cubicles which have a small personal sleeping and living space and are separated from one another by waist-high steel walls. An average of 54 cubicles are jammed into each of the prison’s dormitories.

On March 30, 2020, Valentine and King filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging the prison had failed to implement adequate precautions against the spread of COVID-19 in violation of the Eighth Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act (RA). On April 11, 2020, the first prisoner assigned to Pack Unit died of COVID-19. By the time the case went to trial, about 500 had tested positive for the virus, 74 had been hospitalized with COVID-19 and 19 had died.

The district court entered a preliminary injunction in favor of the prisoners on various COVID related issues. TDCJ appealed. The Fifth Circuit stayed the injunction and then reversed it on June 5, 2020. Which was affirmed by the US Supreme Court. [See: PLN, Jul. 2020, p. 34].

Undeterred, following an 18-day bench trial, the district court issued a permanent injunction requiring the prison to take 17 steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This included providing adequate soap and clean towels, providing hand sanitizer to wheelchair-bound prisoners, providing PPE to prisoners assigned work tasks, testing prisoners for the virus and quarantining COVID-19-positive prisoners. The prison was also required to create plans for contact tracing and sanitization of common surfaces and cubicles. Social distancing rules were to be created and enforced and all of this was to be documented in TDCJ policies and audited for compliance. See: Valentine v. Collier, 490 F.Supp.3d 1121 (SD TX 2020).

TDCJ again appealed and the Fifth Circuit again reversed. The Fifth Circuit noted that TDCJ had implemented many new rules, practices and policies in the weeks before trial, during trial, and after trial. These included creating of an extensive written COVID-19 policy, revising the policy to reflect CDC guidelines, applying some CDC guidelines for nursing homes to the Pack Unit, implementing weekly COVID-19 testing, installing temporary hand washing stations, and installing an electrostatic sprayer which sprays a mist to disinfect the entire prison.

The court noted that TDCJ’s response was not perfect, but perfection was not required—adding new meaning to the term “good enough for government work.” It arguably took too long to get test results back and act on them, guards did not wear their masks all of the time and the social distancing policy could have been better. However, none of this rose to the level of deliberate indifference that would justify a permanent injunction.

With respect the ADA and RA claims, the court held that plaintiffs had neither shown that the prison official defendants had personal knowledge of the difficulties prisoners in wheelchairs had practicing proper hand sanitation nor was it obvious. Therefore, the court vacated the injunction, reversed the judgment of the district court and rendered judgment for the defendant prison officials. See: Valentine v. Collier, 993 F.3d 270 (5th Cir. 2021).

This case fits into an ongoing pattern. Prisoners who seek relief from COVID related conditions can win at the trial court level. But prison officials who have appealed have seen the appellate courts uniformly rule in favor of the government. It remains to be seen what happens when the cases seeking money damages for the thousands of prisoners killed by COVID start going to trial and then hitting the appellate courts. 

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Related legal case

Valentine v. Collier