First a warning: This post is about prison conditions in Texas, so you will need a strong stomach to continue reading.
In their orders on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit (the appeals court covering Texas) that had blocked a Texas inmate’s lawsuit against prison officials based on the conditions of his incarceration. The 5th Circuit had thrown the case out, ruling that the prison officials did not have fair warning that keeping a prisoner in such conditions was unconstitutional.
Here are the facts of the case as described by the Court:
“Taylor alleges that, for six full days in September 2013, correctional officers confined him in a pair of shockingly unsanitary cells. The first cell was covered, nearly floor to ceiling, in “‘massive amounts’ of feces”: all over the floor, the ceiling, the window, the walls, and even “‘packed inside the water faucet.’” Taylor v. Stevens, 946 F. 3d 211, 218 (CA5 2019). Fearing that his food and water would be contaminated, Taylor did not eat or drink for nearly four days. Correctional officers then moved Taylor to a second, frigidly cold cell, which was equipped with only a clogged drain in the floor to dispose of bodily wastes. Taylor held his bladder for over 24 hours, but he eventually (and involuntarily) relieved himself, causing the drain to overflow and raw sewage to spill across the floor. Because the cell lacked a bunk, and because Taylor was confined without clothing, he was left to sleep naked in sewage.”
“But, based on its assessment that “[t]he law wasn’t clearly established” that “prisoners couldn’t be housed in cells teeming with human waste” “for only six days,” the [Fifth Circuit] concluded that the prison officials responsible for Taylor’s confinement did not have “‘fair warning’ that their specific acts were unconstitutional.”
The SCOTUS disagreed with the Fifth Circuit, holding that no reasonable correctional officer could have concluded that, under the extreme circumstances of this case, it was constitutionally permissible to house Taylor in such deplorably unsanitary conditions for such an extended period of time. The SCOTUS further stated that “… any reasonable officer should have realized that Taylor’s conditions of confinement offended the Constitution.”
Justice Thomas dissented without opinion.
What will surprise those who are not lawyers is that the SCOTUS overturning an appellate court in a case of this nature is fairly extraordinary. It takes facts this over-the-top terrible to get any traction at the Supreme Court. There are many cases that are this bad or nearly this bad that are routinely crushed by the court of appeals. The legal doctrine is called “qualified immunity” and its abuse by law enforcement and the judicial system is rampant in this part of the country.
Such is the current state of civil rights in Texas.