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Supreme Court Rejects Texas Inmates on Covid-19 Prevention (1)

May 14, 2020, 11:00 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to reinstate a judge’s order that had required a Texas prison for elderly inmates to take more than a dozen specific steps to protect against the coronavirus outbreak.

The justices Thursday rejected calls by inmates Laddy Valentine, 69, and Richard King 73, who said the Wallace Pack Unit in southeastern Texas isn’t doing enough to protect them from possible infection.

The case marked the first time Supreme Court intervention had been sought in a dispute over the steps prisons must take to protect inmates from the coronavirus.

The court as a whole gave no explanation, and no justices publicly dissented. But Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg said they were concerned about “disturbing allegations,” pointing to indications that the prison didn’t improve its cleaning protocol after the outbreak began and didn’t isolate an inmate who contracted the virus and later died.

“It has long been said that a society’s worth can be judged by taking stock of its prisons,” Sotomayor wrote for the pair. “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.”

More than 20,000 prisoners across the county have been infected with Covid-19 and more than 300 have died, according to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit journalism organization that focuses on criminal justice.

U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison ordered the prison to provide hand sanitizer, disinfect common areas every 30 minutes and provide all inmates and staff members with masks that are washed on a regular basis. A federal appeals court blocked Ellison’s order while the case was on appeal.

Texas officials told the Supreme Court they are already complying with or exceeding the prison recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Officials say they provide inmates with unlimited soap and water, making hand sanitizer unnecessary, as well as cloth masks that are washed daily.

The case is Valentine v. Collier, 19A1034.

(Updates with Sotomayor’s opinion starting in fourth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story:
Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net

Laurie Asséo

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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