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Fifth Circuit Says Federal Habeas Action May Not Be Used to Challenge Conditions of Confinement Related to COVID-19

by Matt Clarke

As previously reported by PLN, federal appellate courts in the U.S. have taken a dim view of challenges to conditions of confinement that place prisoners at elevated risk from COVID-19.

Early in the pandemic, in May 2020, the Eleventh Circuit stayed an injunction issued by a federal district court in Florida that would have forced Miami-Dade jail officials to provide masks and hand soap, among other precautions to slow the spread of the disease. [See: PLN, June 2020, p.28.]

Ten months later, in March 2021, before vaccines were widely available to prisoners, the Fifth Circuit stayed a similar injunction issued against Texas prison officials. [See: PLN, Nov. 2021, p.11.]

That decision was right in line with a broader one the Fifth Circuit had issued the month before on February 2, 2021, holding that a federal habeas corpus action may not be used to challenge COVID-19-related conditions of confinement.

That suit had been brought by Skyler Thomas Rice, a pretrial detainee held in the Harris County jail in Houston. He filed his action in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on April 15, 2020, seeking release under 28 U.S.C.§ 2241 because his health complications, including asthma and hypertension, placed him at high risk should he contract COVID-19, and conditions at the jail allegedly made it impossible to practice social distancing or proper hygiene.

The district court denied relief in a ruling issued on August 6, 2020, saying that “[t]he proper procedure for seeking pre-trial relief on speedy trial grounds is to file a petition for writ of mandamus in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.” As the court explained, Rice’s complaints were civil rights claims, which are “not actionable in a federal habeas proceeding because the writ of habeas corpus provides a remedy only for prisoners challenging the ‘fact or duration’ of confinement and is not properly used as an avenue for relief from conditions of confinement.” See: Rice v. Gonzalez, USDC (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 4:20-CV-1354.

On appeal to the Fifth Circuit, the three-judge panel refused to interpret Rice’s claims as a civil rights action, agreeing with the district court that interpreting his claim as one for habeas corpus relief must be denied. Citing Pierre v. United States, 525 F.2d 933 (5th Cir. 1976), the Court held that “the Great Writ does not, in this circuit, afford release for prisoners held in state custody due to adverse conditions of confinement.”

Thus, the proper vehicle for challenging conditions of confinement is a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Court said. While noting that its opinion conflicted with Wilson v. Williams, 961 F.3d 829 (6th Cir. 2020), the Court emphasized that another circuit’s published case law does not overrule the Fifth Circuit’s published case law, which has consistently handled such claims under § 1983. The court also noted that Rice contracted COVID-19 after filing the lawsuit and survived. The district court’s dismissal was affirmed. Rice represented himself pro se. See: Rice v. Gonzalez, 985 F.3d 1069 (5th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal cases

Rice v. Gonzalez

Rice v. Gonzalez