U.S. Supreme Court

Sotomayor statement highlights 'disturbing allegations' in geriatric inmates' COVID-19 suit

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The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request Thursday by inmates in a Texas geriatric prison who alleged inadequate efforts to contain the novel coronavirus.

The inmates had asked the Supreme Court to reinstate a federal judge’s order requiring increased cleaning and education efforts. Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed with the Supreme Court’s refusal on procedural grounds, but wrote separately “to highlight the disturbing allegations” in the case. Her opinion was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The prison, the Wallace Pack Unit, is located in Grimes County, Texas, the New York Times reports in its coverage of the case.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Louisiana had stayed the district court’s cleaning order pending appeal.

In granting the stay, the 5th Circuit said the prison was likely to prevail on its claim that the inmates failed to exhaust remedies before suing because they didn’t file a grievance.

Sotomayor wrote in her statement that it is hard to conclude that the 5th Circuit was “demonstrably wrong” on the procedural issue. But she raised concerns that the 5th Circuit did not defer to factual findings of the district court and did not appear to acknowledge that in some cases, a grievance procedure can be a “dead end.”

The district court had found that the dormitory-style prison’s cleaning procedures remained the same, despite adopting a policy to enhance them.

“The facility neither increased the number of inmate janitors nor ensured that the existing janitors did their jobs safely and effectively,” Sotomayor said.

“One janitor testified that, just as before the pandemic, the cleaning solution provided to the cleaning crews was frequently depleted by midafternoon, only halfway through a shift. Each day, he received only one pair of gloves to share with his co-janitor, an arrangement medical experts described as tantamount to no gloves at all,” she wrote.

The prison also adopted a policy that included taking inmates’ temperatures twice per day, providing them with cloth face masks to be changed daily, and placing inmates with symptoms in medical isolation.

Yet one inmate, Leonard Clerkly, was transferred to the hospital April 11 because of difficulty breathing.

“He was pronounced dead mere hours later,” Sotomayor said.

There were no indications that the prison had identified Clerkly as symptomatic or that it had isolated and treated him.

The prison has also failed to explain why it didn’t reduce the number of prisoners in dorms, despite having an empty unit available.

“As the circumstances of this case make clear, the stakes could not be higher,” Sotomayor wrote. “Just a few nights ago, respondents revealed that ‘numerous inmates and staff members’ at the [Wallace] Pack Unit ‘are now COVID-19 positive and the vast majority of those tested positive within the past two weeks,’ ” Sotomayor said, quoting from a supplemental brief.

“It has long been said that a society’s worth can be judged by taking stock of its prisons,” Sotomayor said. “That is all the truer in this pandemic, where inmates everywhere have been rendered vulnerable and often powerless to protect themselves from harm. May we hope that our country’s facilities serve as models rather than cautionary tales.”

The case is Valentine v. Collier.

Hat tip to @steve_vladeck and the Marshall Project.

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