The Supreme Court denied a request from inmates in a geriatric prison in Texas to allow further protections from COVID-19, CNN reports. It is the latest example of the high court’s deferring to state and local officials as they work to combat the pandemic, and comes as COVID-19 is rapidly spreading nationwide. The court’s order was unsigned, but Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Elena Kagan, dissented, arguing that the prisoners face “severe risks of serious illness and death from COVID-19, but are unable to take even the most basic precautions against the virus.” Sotomayor added, “The inmates can do nothing but wait for the virus to take its toll,” noting that 20 lives have already been lost. She said she feared they will be subject to “further, needless suffering.”
Lawyers for Laddy Valentine and Richard King told the justices that the elderly inmates in a Grimes County geriatric prison filed suit because of officials “deliberately indifferent response” to the spread of COVID-19, alleging that current conditions resulted in “intolerable and patently unconstitutional prison conditions.” A district court ruled in their favor, specifying “reasonable actions” the prison could take based in part on trial testimony from public health experts. A federal appeals court put that opinion on hold. Lawyers for the inmates asked the Supreme Court to lift the hold. Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins argued that the prison has taken precautions including “repeated mass testing of inmates” and that the number of infections at the Pack Unit has “fallen dramatically.” Hawkins said the district court lacked the power to enter an injunction because inmates had failed to exhaust available internal avenues for relief.