The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held Wednesday that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) does not have to comply with a list of COVID-19 protection measures from a lower court’s ruling last week because it is already complying with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and the lower court’s ruling goes beyond what would be constitutionally sufficient.
The decision concerns a lawsuit brought in late March by several inmates at a facility meant specifically for older inmates, calling COVID-19 a “ticking time bomb” in their prison and arguing that failure to provide adequate protection is a violation of their Eighth Amendment rights. Judge Keith Ellison of the District court handed down a list of requirements for the TDCJ to comply with, including cleaning of common surfaces every 30 minutes; signage providing education; and hand sanitizer, masks, and unrestricted access to soap and towels.
The three-judge panel from the Fifth Circuit said that the initial order included a “micromanagement” level of requirements, which they explain fails the standard in such orders of being “narrowly drawn” or the “least intrusive means” available. In addition, the appeals court noted that “after accounting for the protective measures TDCJ has taken, the [inmates] have not shown a ‘substantial risk of serious harm’ that amounts to cruel and unusual punishment’” as to constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The ruling argues that the TDCJ is already providing enough protection to inmates as recommended by the CDC, including “access to soap, tissues, gloves, masks, regular cleaning, signage and education, quarantine of new prisoners, and social distancing during transport.”
Governors, corrections departments and courts have been facing crucial decisions over what to do with the nation’s prison populations amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, a federal judge in California refused to order prison officials to release large number of inmates or impose social-distancing requirements as protections against the novel coronavirus, saying the state has acted reasonably so far by freeing several thousand prisoners ahead of schedule and taking steps to expand housing and improve sanitation. Maryland governor Lawrence Hogan signed an executive order on Saturday allowing the expedited release of hundreds of eligible inmates in an effort to enable social distancing and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within the state’s prisons, joining several other states including Pennsylvania.
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