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Sweeping COVID protections ordered at Texas prison by federal judge

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 9/29/2020 By Gabrielle Banks, Staff writer
a close up of a sign © Yi-Chin Lee / Houston Chronicle, PRISONHEAT / Yi-Chin Lee

A federal judge Tuesday ordered a geriatric prison near Houston to provide more robust protection against COVID-19, in a ruling that could impact prison conditions in other jurisdictions.

The permanent order by U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison goes into effect Oct. 14 at the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota.

Ellison issued a permanent injunction after hearing testimony this summer about the lack of access to soap, hand sanitizer and routine testing. One elderly prisoner who uses a wheelchair told the court the prison would not allow him to use hand sanitizer when he returned from wheeling his chair back to his bunk.

The order calls for new standards at the prison, aimed at ensuring uniform and consistent protection from the virus to which many at the 1,400-man lockup are especially vulnerable as well as regular weekly testing and a built-in audit to make sure the prison is doing what he ordered it to do.

“This is a victory for the prisoners not only at the Pack Unit but for prisoners everywhere, because it shows that even the least powerful among us are protected by the constitution,” said attorney Jeff Edwards whose Austin law firm brought the case along with lawyers from Winston & Strawn LLP. A spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice could not be reached for immediate comment.

Jeremy Desel, a spokesman for TDCJ, said officials just received the ruling and are in the process of reviewing it. He said they would likely comment later in the day.

The judge ordered the warden to provide unrestricted access to hand soap and clean or disposable hand towels and said that mobility-impaired inmates must be allowed hand sanitizer. He also mandated there be sufficient cleaning supplies in each housing area and fresh gloves and masks every time inmates are asked to perform new tasks, including janitorial and laundry shifts. He ordered the prison to enforce a new alternating head to foot sleeping arrangement in the Pack dormitories.

The employees must also step up, the judge said. He ordered the prison to create a plan for regular cleaning of the living spaces of inmates who are unable to clean them themselves. Staff must mark off areas with red tape to indicate social distancing requirements and make common spaces available for temporary housing of inmates who do not have disabilities. Prison employees must enforce their own use of PPE.

Ellison ordered the prison to curtail transportation other than for medical appointments or release from custody. 

In addition, the judge said the warden must implement a comprehensive weekly testing program that provides 48-hour results until the pandemic is under control in Texas. This requirement stays in place “even if multiple weeks pass with zero positive cases.” He said the prison must quarantine inmates awaiting test results from those who have tested negative. Officials must also establish a written plan to for contact tracing when an inmate or staff member tests positive.

The prison will have to institute an audit to ensure it is in compliance with these requirements, the judge said.

This story is developing. Please check back for updates.

gabrielle.banks@chron.com

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