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COVID-19 and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice

by Ed Lyon

I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”That’s a famous quote from Luke Skywalker, a character in 1977’s Star Wars, as his Millennium Falcon spacecraft emerges from faster-than-light speed only to find Alderaan, its destination planet, has been destroyed. But this phrase of foreboding was also recently echoed by Dr. Carolyn Salter, former mayor of Palestine, Texas—and for extremely good reason as it turned out.

Located in Anderson County, Palestine is home to five prison units of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), the largest state prison system in the U.S. with over 135,000 people in custody. Palestine’s Beto and Coffield prisons are reportedly TDCJ’s largest prisons, and the total population of all five Anderson County jails hovers around 14,000.

With staff numbering about 2,000, TDCJ is also the largest single employer in the county, just as its 37,000 statewide employees make it the largest employer in Texas. [PLN, November 2015, pp. 56-57]

As early as February 2020, penology experts across the nation were warning that prisons could, and probably would, become huge Petri dishes for COVID-19. The overwhelming majority of prisoners are housed two to a 6-by-8½-foot closet with a tiny sink and toilet, small cramped dayrooms (for prisons that have dayrooms), tiny shower spaces and crowded dining halls that make social distancing physically impossible.

A group of elderly prisoners at TDCJ’s Wallace Pack unit near Navasota sued for masks and hand sanitizer in March 2020. U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison granted their request in a ruling that harshly criticized TDCJ for leaving the prisoners vulnerable to the disease. But an appeals court blocked his order in late April 2020. Meanwhile, TDCJ prisoners have sewn 700,000 masks for distributed throughout the system.

Anderson County reported its first COVID-19 case on April 2, 2020. By the following week, Beto had reported six cases. Ten days later, the number was 100, and by the last week of April the number had more than doubled to over 200, underscoring Dr. Salter’s concerns. Two of Palestine’s other prisons had begun reporting cases by then as well.

As of early June 2020, TDCJ had not tested the entire population of a single prison, having tested 71,168 prisoners, or about half its total prisoner population, for COVID-19. About 9.4 percent of those tests – a total of 6,666 – had come back positive, mirroring the 10 percent positive rate of testing in the rest of Texas. Almost 93,000 TDCJ prisoners and staff have been tested for the disease, with 7,654 positive results and 49 deaths, the most recent on May 28, 2020, when 70-year-old Estelle Unit prisoner Herman Martinez succumbed to the disease.

When the crisis first arrived in March 2020, TDCJ canceled in-person visitation and put its prisons on lockdown, isolating prisoners in their cells or dormitories, where they receive all their meals in paper sacks. TDCJ began transferring elderly prisoners and those with underlying health issues from Anderson County to prisons in southeastern Texas in April 2020 in order to position them closer to TDCJ’s John Sealey Hospital at Galveston, according to the Brazoria County Facts newspaper.

On April 16, 2020, Ramsey prison in Brazoria County received 31 of these prisoners. On April 21, two of those evacuee’s COVID-19 tests showed positive results for the virus. Senior warden Kristi Pittman immediately locked the unit down, successfully preventing the coronavirus from reaching the rest of Ramsey’s prisoner population.

Back in Anderson County, current Palestine Mayor Steve Presley accused TDCJ of undertesting and understating existing test results at the Beto unit. TDCJ replied that COVID-19 testing at the prison was being done. In such a small community, however, it did not take long for word to reach Mayor Presley that only Beto’s employees were being tested and even that was being conducted on a voluntary basis. TDCJ had also told the mayor unit-to-unit transfers had ceased, when in fact they had not.

“Did they think we couldn’t find out [the truth] in a town this small?” Presley fumed. “That people [who work for TDCJ] wouldn’t tell us?”

Brazoria County Facts also published statements from the county’s sheriff and Commissioners Court excoriating TDCJ’s decision not to apprise them of the decision to bring COVID-19 positive prisoners from the Anderson prisons to Brazoria County, which has an even larger number of TDCJ prisons. As it is in Anderson County, TDCJ is the Brazoria County’s largest employer.

But there is a rationale for testing staff first, according to Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Dr. Chris Beyer. He says that most viral outbreaks in prisons are introduced by staff.

Because of the economic benefits to Anderson and Brazoria counties, and regardless of the danger to the general population, both counties will no doubt suffer through whatever TDCJ subjects them to. The focal point of the COVID-19 crisis will eventually come around to demonizing the prison population rather than the state agencies that should ultimately and legitimately shoulder the full blame for the enhanced COVID-19 dangers emanating from prisons.

Out of TDCJ’s current population of 135,800 prisoners, 79,552 – 58.6% – are eligible for parole release. [See PLN, February 2020, p. 44] Most of them are serving consecutive 3, 5, 7 and 10-year long parole set-offs. But many of these prisoners have earned advanced college degrees and become elderly. These groups have a less than l percent recidivism rate and pose a minuscule crime risk to whatever community they would be returning to. A failure to release many of them leaves the blame for any increase in the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus in Texas via its prisons placed squarely upon the shoulders of TDCJ and Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. 

 

Sources: Brazoria County Facts, themarshallproject.org, texasmonthly.com, texastribune.org, tdcj.texas.gov