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Texas Prisons Close Amid Pandemic

TDCJ said the latter two were expected to be temporary closures, though they remained empty of all but a barebones maintenance staff as of April 2021.

The state attributed the prison closings to a critical shortage of staff, though the COVID-19 pandemic has also caused a significant reduction in the prisoner population. A freeze on transfers from county jails that lasted from March to October 2020 left TDCJ with 18,000 fewer prisoners, reducing its prisoner count to the lowest number it has held since the mid-1900s when the state’s prison-building boom hit its height.

“The population is 122,000 and change, and it’s been fairly stable in the 121,000-122,000 range for a couple of months now,” said Jeremy Desell, a spokesperson for the agency. “But that’s the lowest prison population for TDCJ since 1995.”

The Wayne Scott Unit, built in 1913, was a minimum-security prison that housed up to 809 men. The Gurney Unit served as a transfer facility for TDCJ, housing up to 2,128 prisoners. The Neal Unit housed up to 1,728 prisoners. It had reported over 1,000 cases of COVID-19 by the end of September 2020.

With the most recent prison closures, TDCJ now operates 101 facilities. The agency had also shut down three other prisons in September 2020: Garza East in Beeville, Jester I Unit near Sugar Land and Bradshaw State Jail in Henderson. Only the first two of those three were permanent closures, the agency said. All six of the shuttered prisons housed men only. Both prisoners and guards from the closed units were transferred to other prisons.

But despite these infusions of experienced officers — about 560 guards worked at the three closed prisons in October 2020 — many TDCJ facilities remained dangerously under­staffed. The agency reported in October 2020 that it had 5,500 vacant guard positions, about 22 percent of its total workforce. Some prisons had vacancies in more than half their guard slots.

Some employees charge that they are forced to slacken their security procedures by the staffing shortages, and that mandatory overtime has only made a bad situation worse. Guards have also reported more assaults by prisoners.

Problems arising from a shortage of guards have been readily apparent at the Telford Unit in New Boston, a town outside Texarkana. TDCJ acknowledged in April 2020 that the maximum-security prison had almost 200 vacancies for full-time guards, leaving it with less than two-thirds of the authorized workforce needed for up to 2,872 prisoners at full capacity.

“Working those longer hours and having that safety aspect in the back of your mind that maybe you’re not as safe as you should be or were, it wears on you,” said a former employee there, who chose to keep his identity secret due to concerns that his friends still working at the unit might be targeted for retaliation.

“I’ve known [corrections officers] to get physically ill at the mere thought of going to Telford,” he added.

The Telford Unit led TDCJ in serious assaults on staff in 2019, a distinction it has held often in recent years. The prison has had an especially hard time retaining employees since guard Timothy Davidson, 47, was killed in 2015. He had only been working there for seven months when a prisoner managed to slip out of handcuffs and beat him to death.

TDCJ protocol requires that two guards must take high-risk inmates out of their cells. But, as in Davidson’s case, staffing shortages have often made that requirement difficult if not impossible to comply with.

Conditions have deteriorated for prisoners as well. Over the 12 months leading up to May 2019, the prisoners at Telford Unit had spent almost 100 days on lockdown — confined to their cells for 24 hours a day with no access to fresh air, recreation, or the commissary. The most consistent complaint during these stretches was the food; rather than the usual hot meals, prisoners received sacks containing two sandwiches.

When some prisoners’ families expressed concerns to TDCJ about their loved one’s severe weight loss and malnutrition, the agency replied that the sack meals met the calorie count mandated by federal guidelines.

The situation at Telford Unit improved temporarily when several hundred high-risk prisoners were transferred to other prisons and guards from shuttered facilities were added to the staff. But critics have expressed doubts about the future feasibility of lockups like Telford Unit that are located in small towns.

“State leadership doled out prisons as economic stimulus for rural communities, but the pay was never there to attract staff to sufficiently maintain these units,” said Lance Lowry, a former guard’ union president and sergeant at a Huntsville prison. “I don’t know how many people from Dallas or Houston want to move to New Boston, Texas.”

COVID-19 has only exacerbated TDCJ’s staffing issues.

As of April 9, 2021, TDCJ had reported over 34,000 cases of the disease among its prisoners, with at least 136 deaths. At least 45 employees had died with over 11,000 cases reported among staff members.

A federal lawsuit filed by elderly prisoners in the Wallace Pack Unit alleging that TDCJ was deliberately indifferent to their risk of death from the disease was decided in favor of the agency in March 2021, when the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that TDCJ’s countermeasures to combat spread of the disease were sufficient. That decision earned praise from state Attorney General Ken Paxton (R).

“TDCJ took extraordinary measures to protect inmates and staff from COVID-19,” he said. “I applaud them for their extensive efforts to safeguard inmates’ health and safety, and I commend the court for recognizing the efficiency of their protocols and the need for flexibility to address changes in our understanding of this virus.”

Paxton has been under indictment for securities fraud for most of his six years in office. Both high-profile Democrats — like former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski — and Republicans — like state Land Commissioner George P. Bush — have set their sights on replacing him. Bush is the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush. Jaworski’s grandfather, Leon, served as special prosecutor in the Watergate trial of former President Richard M. Nixon.

Combining the staff and populations of various prisons closed has increased the risks of further infections. Heading into 2021, TDCJ was dealing with both infection spikes and a huge budget shortfall.

It was unclear if the agency’s prisoner count would go back to pre-pandemic levels as crime rates continue to fall and communities implement policy changes like diversion programs and increased mental health services. 



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