A Texas inmate with a wool allergy has been trying to obtain a cotton blanket for 10 years. He eventually opted to file a pro se lawsuit alleging civil rights violations, and a federal judge ruled last week that the suit, or at least parts of it, can move forward.
Calvin Weaver's suit says he was diagnosed as "hyper-allergic to the wool blanket issued by" the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). He reports that he got a medical pass in 2001 allowing him to use a cotton blanket. But in 2009, inmates with wool allergies were given non-wool blankets "with a recycled blend of waste by-products," the suit says.
"He alleges that the new blankets caused itching, open sores, and sleep deprivation resulting in hypertension and anxiety," according to a summary of the lawsuit included in Judge Kenneth Hoyt's March 29 ruling.
In August 2018, the defendants, all whom are employed by the TDJC, filed motions to dismiss the suit. While Hoyt did not rule on the merits of the lawsuit, he did decide whether or not Weaver can seek monetary damages and injunctive relief (i.e., a new blanket).
Weaver's suit named five people as defendants: the warden of his unit, a unit supervisor, the executive director of the TDCJ, a medical doctor employed by the agency, and a manager at a prison unit medical practice. The warden and the executive director cannot be sued, Hoyt says, but the three other employees can, because Weaver claims they knew he had complained about his medical reaction to the blanket yet either ignored him or denied his requests for relief.
"Under the liberal reading required on a motion to dismiss, these allegations are sufficient to state a claim for deliberate indifference to Weaver's serious medical needs," Hoyt writes. Weaver cannot sue them for monetary damage in their official capacities as TDCJ employees, though he can seek damages "in their individual capacities."
"Since the mid-2000's the blankets distributed to TDCJ offenders have been manufactured by Texas Correctional Industries," TDCJ Communications Director Jeremy Desel told Reason via email. "These blankets contain no wool and are made of 40 percent virgin synthetic poly staple and 60 percent recycled synthetic natural fiber. An offender who asks for an alternative due to a potential medical issue is tested for any potential allergies and if warranted offered a medical pass for an alternative blanket."
With that in mind, it's hard to understand why prison officials would be so opposed to granting a man's simple request of a cotton blanket. Unfortunately, this is par for the course for the TDCJ.
In 2016, six Texas inmates sued the prison system over dangerous conditions due to extreme summer heat. The issue was a lack of sufficient air conditioning. "Each summer, including this one, Plaintiffs face a substantial risk of serious harm from the sweltering Texas heat, and Defendants have been deliberately indifferent in responding to this risk," a federal judge ruled in 2017. But the state has fought efforts that would require all uncooled prisons to have air conditioners installed, The Texas Tribune reported last month.
As of August 2017, Texas had more prisoners who'd been in solitary confinement for six years or longer—1,326—than any other state in the nation. The second-place state, Pennsylvania, had just 151.
The TDCJ is the same agency responsible for recently refusing to allow a death row inmate to spend his last moments with his spiritual adviser. After the Supreme Court granted the man a stay of execution last week, the TDCJ changed its policy: It will now ban all chaplains from execution chambers.
This post has been updated with an emailed comment from TDCJ Communications Director Jeremy Desel.