Older inmates sue Texas prison system over coronavirus policies and practices

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Two older Texas inmates are suing the state’s prison system for its handling of the new coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit, filed Monday, argues the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is failing to protect prisoners at the Pack Unit, a geriatric prison near College Station, from the potentially fatal virus. Some of the attorneys representing the inmates are the same ones who sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for stifling temperatures at the same prison.

“Despite the ticking time bomb that COVID-19 represents, TDCJ has failed to implement necessary or even adequate policies and practices at the Pack Unit,” said the complaint, filed in Texas’ Southern District federal court. “... In practice the situation is even worse, as TDCJ has failed to implement many of its own policies.”

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, has killed tens of thousands of people worldwide, including at least 38 in Texas as of Sunday night. The effect it could have on prisons and jails — often incubators for disease due to unsanitary and crowded conditions — has caused prison reform advocates and local governments to push for the release of more inmates from behind bars. Some law enforcement groups, and Gov. Greg Abbott, have opposed the move, arguing it endangers public safety.

As of Saturday, one Texas prisoner and five employees at TDCJ had tested positive for the virus at various facilities throughout the state, according to the department. Hundreds of inmates were being restricted because of possible exposure.

Before cases were confirmed in the prisons last week, TDCJ began implementing preventative measures against the introduction and spread of the new coronavirus. The agency developed a new infectious disease control protocol which in part focuses on education and disinfecting prison areas. Group activities, like eating and recreation were being limited to smaller groups, the department said. And all prisoner visitation has been halted. So has almost all transportation of inmates, except for emergencies.

The filing argues the new policies are not enough, and even then, they aren't always being put into practice. It notes that while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested relaxing prison restrictions on hand sanitizer, TDCJ has opted not to do that, though prisoners at one unit are manufacturing it.

This story is developing and will be updated.