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Lawyer: Texas geriatric inmates being deprived of protection from COVID-19

Lawyers said prison officials haven’t provided inmates hand sanitizer, sufficient testing, contact tracing or social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19

By Gabrielle Banks
Houston Chronicle

GRIMES COUNTY, Texas — Guards sort sack lunches without masks or gloves on.

Inmates arrive at showers to find Band-Aids, razors and socks discarded on the floor. They wash their hands with soap, but are not allowed hand sanitizer after they’ve rolled themselves back to their bunks in wheelchairs.

These were examples of the callous disregard the Texas prison system has shown to geriatric inmates, according to testimony Monday by Laddy Valentine, a 69-year-old inmate involved in a federal class action seeking more protective measures to combat COVID-19 at a lockup of elderly, medically compromised and mobility impaired inmates outside Houston.

Attorneys told the judge at a video hearing that prison officials have failed to follow their own guidelines or make special provisions to protect more than 1,100 vulnerable inmates at the Pack Unit from the virus. They have not provided inmates hand sanitizer, sufficient testing, contact tracing or social distancing to prevent the spread of the disease, lawyers said.

“The Pack Unit was like a tinderbox where COVID-19 virus would spread rapidly if immediate action was not taken,” said attorney John Keville. The first death at the prison April 11 was “like a spark” and officials’ failure to take public health measures, like contact tracing, social distancing and rigorous cleaning, resulted in “a raging fire,” he said.

Nineteen inmates have died at Pack of Covid and more than hundred have been hospitalized over the past few months.

Shawn Cowles, of state Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, argued that the prison system could not and should not be expected to defend itself against the scourge of “a lethal viral killer where no person and no place is immune.” Instead the judge should keep in mind the legal standard of “deliberate indifference,” whether officials “intentionally ignored” or “purposely disregarded” the onslaught of the disease.

The bench trial is expected to last two weeks.

The civil rights lawsuit is before U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison, who oversaw a lengthy lawsuit by Pack inmates over exposure to deadly indoor heat. That case ended in a historic settlement: The facility is now air conditioned in the hot months, but inmates say officials are now showing intentional indifference to their health during the pandemic, in violation of their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.

The Pack Unit is one of 104 prisons in the state, but it accounts for 20 percent of COVID-19 deaths across the prisons. The case highlights an issue bubbling up around the country. The U.S. leads the word in its COVID-19 infection rate among incarcerated populations, according to Jennifer Lackey, director of the Northwestern Prison Education Program. The infection rate among inmates is 5.5 times higher than the among the overall population, according to an article by Sharon Dolovich at the UCLA Law COVID19 Behind Bars Data Project and coauthors from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, published July 8 by the American Medical Association.

Bryan Collier, executive director of the Texas prisons, testified that he was following guidance from his own health department and the CDC and being proactive in combating the disease. But under questioning from inmates’ counsel, Collier declined to commit to continuing a range of measures he’d implemented — contact tracing, testing, allowing unlimited toilet paper and stopping unnecessary transports.

Collier answered questions about what the prison did after a 62-year-old Pack inmate named Leonard Clerkly tested positive for COVID-19 after his death. The 53 people in Clerkly’s dorm were tested, isolated and noted on a contract tracing form. But the prison made no note on the contact form about the prison staff who interacted with him or medical officials who had administered breathing treatments.

Valentine, a 69-year-old inmate who has high blood pressure and uses a walker, said he also tested positive for COVID-19. But no one ever asked him questions or filled out a contact tracing form. He testified that he slept inches from his dorm mates and that low walls between there beds probably did not prevent his germs from spreading.

The inmates have said in court documents the prison didn’t make new dorm space available, so they could space people out.

In his opening argument, Cowles brought up “the elephant in the room,” saying he understood the judge was frustrated with the state’s sluggish response to urgent grievances by inmates.

“I understand the court has lost faith in TDCJ,” Cowles said.

More inmates are expected to testify Tuesday about conditions at the prison and their efforts to get resources to protect them from the coronavirus.


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