Incarcerated People Sue for Access to Soap and Hand Sanitizer

By Shani Saxon Apr 01, 2020

As COVID-19 continues to spread devastation across the globe, incarcerated people are becoming more and more desperate for their basic sanitary needs to be met. Federal lawsuits filed in Washington D.C. and Texas on March 30 accuse state and local correctional facilities of “cruel and unusual punishment” against residents and demand they receive immediate access to soap, hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies—without having to pay, CNN reports. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Washington D.C.’s Public Defender’s Service (PDS) filed the suit on behalf of four people held inside of a D.C. city jail. The plaintiffs are specifically asking for the facility to provide them with “hand soap, paper towels, toilet paper, running water, tissues, no-touch trash cans and hand sanitizer,” according to CNN. They are also requesting daily access to showers and clean laundry. A spokesperson told CNN the jail currently has six confirmed cases of COVID-19. 

Reports CNN:

One inmate could not get a COVID-19 test and was sent back to his housing unit with symptoms of the virus, the complaint said.

"Defendants have not provided additional soap free of charge since the first distribution of the single bar of soap, nor did Defendants inform residents when they will receive more soap," the lawsuit said. "Consequently, some residents have already run out of their single allotted bar, while others are not using the single bar because they do not know when the next bar will come."

"On at least one unit, a closet full of cleaning supplies and clean rags is present, but residents are told they will be punished if they attempt to access or use those supplies to clean the unit, their own cells, or their hands and bodies," the lawsuit added. 

In a statement to CNN, D.C.’s Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue didn’t respond to the lawsuit, but insisted that "since the earliest stages of this unprecedented pandemic, we have been planning for the safety and well-being of all vulnerable populations in the District, which includes residents in the custody of the Department of Corrections.”

“As this public health emergency evolves, we will continue working to keep all residents and workers safe and healthy,” Donahue added.

Monday’s lawsuit in Texas accuses the state’s criminal justice system of failing to take the necessary precautions to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. According to CNN:

…the lawsuit alleges that Texas state inmates can’t get access to hand sanitizer because of state policy that says they can’t have it—even while some inmates have been forced to make it. 

The lawsuit also claims the prison hasn’t taken enough steps to stop the virus from spreading, such as by reducing inmate interactions.

CNN reports an inmate and two employees within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) have tested positive for COVID-19. TDCJ spokesperson Jeremy Desel declined to comment to CNN on the lawsuit because officials are still reviewing the case. 

However, in an emailed statement to CNN, Desel said, "The health and wellbeing of TDCJ employees and contractors as well as the offenders in our custody is of utmost importance. TDCJ is working in close contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Texas State Health officials.

"As guidance from the CDC and state health officials evolves so do our practices,” he added.