Texas Inmates Sue for Access to Hand Sanitizer as Coronavirus Threatens Prisons

The ACLU is also suing Washington, D.C. jails.


Two Texas inmates have filed a lawsuit to improve conditions in their facility as COVID-19 threatens to tear through America's prisons and jails. 

On Monday, two Texas inmates filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), as well as Executive Director Bryan Collier and Deputy Executive Director Oscar Mendoza, alleging "willful and/or deliberately indifferent and discriminatory conduct in failing to protect inmates housed." Plaintiffs Laddy Curtis Valentine, 69, and Richard Elvin King, 73, are incarcerated at Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota, Texas, and both men have chronic illnesses (hypertension and diabetes, respectively) that place them at high risk of death should they become infected.

The two men say Texas inmates are unable to practice social distancing and often come into contact with surfaces where the virus may be present. While the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released guidelines to help corrections facilities prepare, the lawsuit accuses the TDCJ of only partially adopting CDC guidelines, and only when an inmate is showing symptoms of illness. TDCJ has otherwise failed, the lawsuit alleges, to implement policies that would curb the spread behind bars.

"While TDCJ has implemented policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,
these procedures are woefully inadequate and do not comport with many of the CDC's
recommendations," the suit alleges.

For example, the CDC recommends that corrections facilities consider "relaxing restrictions" on alcohol-based sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol, which can be used when soap and water are not readily available.

But King and Valentine claim in their lawsuit that they are not allowed to use alcohol-based sanitizer even when performing the same tasks as staff, and must instead use soap and water even though it is often not available. (TDCJ's new COVID-19 policy does encourage staff to carry hand sanitizer, but King and Valentine say prisoners are still prohibited from having access to it.)

"And, ironically," the suit continues, "TDCJ inmates have been pressed into manufacturing alcohol-based hand sanitizer at the Roach Unit. Thus, TDCJ is forcing inmates to manufacture a necessary preventative measure they are prohibited from using themselves."

The prisoners are asking for unrestricted access to antibacterial hand soap and disposable hand towels, access to hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol, and access to bleach-based cleaning agents to disinfect housing areas and common-use surfaces and items.

"TDCJ's failures don't just affect the inmates. Prison health is community health.
An outbreak at the Pack Unit could easily spread to the surrounding communities, and vice versa," the plaintiffs argue.

Prisoners, their families, and advocacy groups around the country are pushing correctional facilities to protect the health of people under their supervision. On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, D.C. filed a class-action lawsuit against the D.C. Department of Corrections alleging inadequate sanitation to stop the spread of COVID-19, including failing to provide hand soap or sanitizer.