May 16, 2020
Inmates at a Texas prison for geriatric inmates recently filed suit in federal court alleging that the facility was not doing enough to protect them from COVID-19. In the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the U.S. District Court “heard unrebutted testimony about the imminent dangers faced by the inmates, some of whom have already died. It also heard testimony about the facility’s lackluster efforts to keep the illness from spreading and held that the facility’s inexplicable failures amounted to deliberate indifference for its elderly inmates in violation of the Eighth Amendment.” Based on those findings, the district court issued an injunction requiring the prison to follow an extensive protocol, including frequent cleaning and increased education efforts.
Rather than comply with the order, the Department of Corrections appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court, which stayed the injunction. Now it was the inmates’ turn to appeal, and they went to the nation’s highest court.
On Thursday, the U. S. Supreme Court refused to overturn the Circuit Court’s decision, basing its decision chiefly on the inmates’ failure to exhaust their administrative remedies before filing suit.
But writing separately “to highlight the disturbing allegations presented below,” Justice Sotomayor (who was joined by Justice Ginsburg) concluded that “It has long been said that a society’s worth can be judged by taking stock of its prisons. 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.”