Death row inmates sue Texas prison system over health conditions during COVID-19 pandemic

Samantha Ketterer

Death row inmates at a Livingston-area prison have sued the state prison system, claiming health and safety concerns put them at risk of contracting COVID-19.

The Texas Innocence Network on Friday filed the class-action lawsuit on behalf of the 208 death-sentenced men at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, who allege they have been denied access to soap, clean towels, hand sanitizer and masks.

Attorneys say the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and its leaders have violated guaranteed rights against cruel and unusual punishment, access to legal counsel and accommodations for people with disabilities – all under the First, Eighth and 14th Amendments, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

“Conditions at the Polunsky Unit pose a grave threat to the health and safety of prisoners, many of whom are especially vulnerable because of underlying medical conditions and disabilities,” said David R. Dow, an attorney working on behalf of the prisoners. “Prisoners who become infected will also infect prison staff, who will, in turn, infect individuals in the surrounding communities. Immediate action to improve conditions will be in everyone’s best interests.”

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has not yet responded to a request for comment.

The inmates allege in the suit that corrections officers aren’t consistently using masks or clean gloves, or cleaning common use areas frequently. Employees don’t always sanitize phone booths, phones, doorknobs, surfaces and handcuffs after use, and prisoners are being denied regular showers, according to the Texas Innocence Network.

Signage about the virus doesn’t help people with vision problems, reading difficulties or those with intellectual disabilities, and even more, the prison system has placed “arbitrary limits” on their methods of communication, making it difficult for them to consult with legal counsel, the inmates say.

They allege that the health and safety practices put them at risk, especially because a high number of the inmates are in high-risk categories for the disease.

“Without swift intervention by this Court, Plaintiffs and proposed class members face immediate and irreparable injury of contracting COVID-19, and – due to their particular medical susceptibility and/or age – likely will sustain severe, potentially life-threatening, health complications,” the lawsuit reads.

The inmates are seeking several remedies, including fewer restrictions on calls to attorneys, more cleaning in the unit, access to personal hygiene materials, improved signage and regular shower access.

The lawsuit follows similar litigation from older inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit, northwest of Houston, who successfully asked for face masks and hand sanitizer.

No inmates at the Polunsky unit have contracted the virus, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Three employees are infected, and the unit is on a precautionary lockdown.

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