Federal appeals court rules on preliminary injunction

A federal appeals court extended a stay on a preliminary injunction against the executive director of Texas’ prison system and a warden at one of the prisons in a lawsuit filed by inmates concerned over COVID-19 protections in state correctional facilities.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion on Tuesday arguing that the “level of micromanagement, enforced upon threat of contempt” required by the district court’s injunction extends beyond the reach of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PRLA).

U.S. District Judge Judge Keith P. Ellison’s ruling found that an administrative relief process within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice under the PRLA was “too lengthy to provide timely relief and therefore incapable in use and unavailable under the special circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis.”

The Fifth Circuit disagreed and determined that TDCJ remains possible and that the class action lawsuit — brought by two inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit on March 30 alleging violations of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the Americans with Disabilities Act – may have been “premature.”

The lawsuit named TDCJ Executive Director Brian Collier and Pack Unit Warden Robert Herrera as respondents.

According to the document, the district court admitted that “many of the measures ordered in the preliminary injunction largely overlap” with TDCJ’s COVID-19 policies, but believes the injunction necessary “to promote compliance” with already-issued guidelines.

Some of those guidelines go much further than CDC recommendations, according to the judges. Their opinion noted the district court found that “compliance with those guidelines alone could be constitutionally insufficient.”

The injunction regulated in high detail the cleaning intervals for common areas, the types of bleach-based sanitizer that inmates must receive, mask requirements for inmates, and inmates’ access to issues, signage, social distancing, and education, and more.

Among the measures is a plan to test all Pack Unit inmates for COVID-19 within three days, as well as to quarantine inmates who test positive, clean common surfaces every 30 min for 15 hours each day, and provide masks to all staff and inmates.

The Fifth Circuit called the order “intrusive” and an “administrative nightmare”, though the lower court found the measures necessary to properly mitigate the spread of the virus among inmates.

“Though the district court cited the defendants’ general awareness of the dangers posed by COVID-19, it cited no evidence that they subjectively believe the measures they are taking are inadequate,” the opinion stated.

The appeal is ongoing.