In the end, it wasn't about how awful the conditions were for inmates trapped inside a Beaumont federal prison during Hurricane Rita. To the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, it was all about jurisdiction.
Two years ago, more than 400 former and current inmates sued the U.S. government, claiming that during the month following the Hurricane they were kept locked up in their cells without sufficient water, food, medical help, showers or clean clothing. They also claimed that the toilets did not work and there was no ventilation or escape from the rising tide of feces and urine collecting in their cells.
The Houston Press originally reported this story in February 2008.
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The 5th Circuit recently rejected the inmates' appeal, upholding the decision by the lower court.
"In reaching this conclusion," the court wrote in its decision, "we do not minimize or discount the severe hardships that the plaintiffs endured in the aftermath of the storm. We simply lack jurisdiction to provide relief ...."
The inmates claimed that the decision by prison officials not to evacuate rose to the level of recklessness, malice, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. However, the appeals court panel of three judges decided that the prison officials' choice not to evacuate was the type of decision protected by a discretionary function exception and that the government has sovereign immunity against the claims.
Norman Sirak, attorney for the inmates, has reportedly said he is asking the court to reconsider its decision.