WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court denied a request on Thursday from two inmates in a Texas geriatric prison to reinstate a trial judge’s order instructing officials to take steps to protect them from the coronavirus pandemic.
As is the Supreme Court’s custom in ruling on emergency applications, its brief order was unsigned and gave no reasons. But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, issued a seven-page statement expressing concern about the plight of the nation’s prisoners.
“It has long been said that a society’s worth can be judged by taking stock of its prisons,” Justice Sotomayor wrote. “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.”
On April 16, Judge Keith P. Ellison, of the Federal District Court in Houston, ruled that the pandemic posed a grave threat to hundreds of prisoners held at the Wallace Pack Unit, a state geriatric prison in Grimes County, Texas.
“One person incarcerated at Pack Unit has died from Covid-19,” Judge Ellison wrote, “and we are seeing Covid-19 spread like wildfire in prisons, jails and detention facilities within” the Texas prison system, “the country and the world.”
The case was brought by two prisoners: Laddy Valentine, 69, who is serving a 25-year sentence for child sexual abuse, and Richard King, 73, who is serving a life sentence for murder. They told Judge Ellison that prison officials had not taken adequate steps to protect them and that conditions at the prison violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.
Hand sanitizer was unavailable, they said; guards did not wear masks; three inmates working as janitors were made to share a single pair of gloves; and part of an empty dormitory was not used to create distance among the inmates.
Judge Ellison ordered prison officials to undertake some 14 measures to combat the spread of the virus, including supplying soap, masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and other materials; disinfecting common areas every 30 minutes from early morning until late evening; limiting the admission of new prisoners; testing current prisoners; and suspending co-payments for medical services.
A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, blocked Judge Ellison’s order on April 22, saying that he had exceeded his authority.
The panel, in an unsigned opinion, said that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or T.D.C.J., had taken many steps to address the pandemic and that federal judges should not micromanage state prison systems.
“The harm to T.D.C.J. is particularly acute,” the panel wrote, “because the district court’s order interferes with the rapidly changing and flexible systemwide approach that T.D.C.J. has used to respond to the pandemic so far.”
In the Supreme Court, the prisoners said their case presented a matter of life and death.
“While most of the country observes social distancing and remains in their homes to keep safe from Covid-19,” their brief said, “one highly at-risk population for contraction of the virus has been all but forgotten: those in our nation’s prisons. This case concerns the most basic human right — the ability to protect oneself from grave danger.”
In response, prison officials said they had followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and faulted the prisoners for failing to follow internal grievance procedures and for waiting almost two weeks to seek relief in the Supreme Court.
“Defendants have worked diligently to address the harms posed by Covid-19 in exceedingly difficult circumstances, with available information and medical guidance changing on a daily basis,” the brief said. “There is no evidence that the measures required by the preliminary injunction will be any more effective against the Covid-19 pandemic than the measures already put in place by defendants.”
Justice Sotomayor wrote that the prisoners had not met the demanding standards for lifting the appeals court’s stay. But she said the record in the case was filled with disturbing evidence pointing to the prison’s “lackluster efforts to keep the illness from spreading.”
“While states and prisons retain discretion in how they respond to health emergencies,” she wrote, “federal courts do have an obligation to ensure that prisons are not deliberately indifferent in the face of danger and death.”