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70% Of Texas Prisoners Tested Have Coronavirus. Experts Call For For More Testing, Fewer Inmates

The exterior of Huntsville Unit, a prison in Huntsville, Texas on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019.
Sergio Flores
The Texas Tribune
More than 40,000 inmates at 40 Texas prisons, including the Huntsville Unit, have been put on lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Within the walls of Texas prisons overrun with the new coronavirus, information on its spread is still scarce, and the people locked up and working inside are terrified.

At the massive Beto Unit outside of Palestine, a small town about 100 miles southeast of Dallas, hundreds of inmates and dozens of employees have tested positive for the virus, according to department reports. The prisoners have been largely locked in their cells or dormitories for weeks as officials attempt to contain it, but more men are becoming infected, and inmates and their relatives believe the outbreak is much larger than the numbers reported by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice indicate.

“People are scared to tell the officers that they’re sick because they say they’re not doing much of anything to actually help,” said a Beto inmate in a recent letter to his mother, who asked that they not be named in fear of retaliation. “The sick people use the same showers as the healthy people which is why I choose to take a bird bath,” a prison phrase for washing out of a prison cell’s sink.

“It’s pretty hair-raising,” said the mother, whose son has been granted parole but first needs to complete an in-prison program that is now up in the air. “We’re wondering if he’ll ever get to come home.”

The new coronavirus is fully entrenched in the Texas prison system, confirmed to have infected more than 1,600 inmates and employees at dozens of units. At least 25 infected prisoners and staff members have died. But, like in the rest of the state, the scope of the virus’ spread behind bars is still largely unknown because testing has been limited.

As of Saturday, TDCJ had tested about 1,700 symptomatic inmates for the virus — about 1% of the state’s prison population, according to TDCJ reports. More than 70% of them have tested positive for the coronavirus. That’s a staggeringly high rate compared with the state overall, where less than 10% of the relatively low number of Texans tested had positive results. (Prisoners are largely excluded from state case counts.)

Epidemiologists say more testing is needed in prisons because they are incubators for disease, which can endanger not only prisoners and staff, but surrounding communities as well.

“People tend to think of them as separated from the rest of society, but that is not the case,” said Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Most [prison outbreaks] have begun with introductions from staff.”

TDCJ’s coronavirus policies have evolved during the pandemic. When Gov. Greg Abbott announced a statewide disaster in mid-March, he directed the prisons to cancel all inmate visitation, and the units stepped up their cleaning. After the virus appeared in multiple units and the first inmate died in early April, the agency began two-week lockdowns at all prisons where someone had tested positive. During lockdowns, inmates are largely kept in their cells or dorms without recreation and are fed sack meals. A few days later, TDCJ stopped accepting new inmates from county jails.

Still, prisons and jails are home to many of the country’s largest outbreaks nationally, and the number of infections and deaths continues to rise inside Texas prison walls. While some lawmakers and advocates have praised TDCJ for how it has tackled a complex, ever-changing crisis with limited resources, prisoners’ loved ones — and a federal judge — contend that protective policies enacted by top-level prison officials aren’t always followed by rank-and-file staff.

And infectious disease experts and prisoner rights advocates say much more needs to be done, starting with mass testing of inmates and reducing the overall prisoner population.

“Until they start doing mass testing, I don’t think they’re going to get a hold of the problem there,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer and prison conditions expert at the University of Texas law school. “There are going to continue to be deaths, and it’s going to continue spreading to the communities both through staff and people who are released and people who are sent to community hospitals.”

But Texas has one of the lowest testing rates in the country. State Rep. James White, who leads the Texas House Corrections Committee, said the prison system is doing the best it can with the resources it has.

“Whatever we’re challenged with in the so-called free society, we have those same challenges, if not exacerbated, in the incarcerated population,” the Hillister Republican said. “We’re having challenges with testing like in the state.”

Releasing some prisoners early — which could include elderly inmates eligible for parole, people close to finishing their sentences or those who have already been granted parole but are still behind bars — is a decision that falls to Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, but neither has indicated any plans to do so.

After some law enforcement officials and conservatives argued that freeing more inmates could lead to a spike in crime when police are already stretched thin, Abbott came out against more releases from lockups.

“We want to prevent the spread of #COVID19 among prison staff & inmates. But, releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not the solution,” Abbott said in a March tweet.

But Seth Prins, an assistant professor of epidemiology and sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, said it’s too late to rely solely on mitigation in the prisons.

“Really the only effective strategy is to get as many people out as possible,” he said. “I wish there was a middle-of-the-road answer, but there’s not.”

The push for testing

Last week, TDCJ said it began targeted testing of hundreds of high-risk inmates without symptoms at a handful of prisons. But it has yet to test an entire prison — even at Beto, where limited testing has confirmed more than 200 inmates have had the virus. Other states, including Ohio, have tested entire prisons — and revealed troubling numbers of asymptomatic inmates with the virus.

By late April, TDCJ had only once tested a group of inmates who weren’t symptomatic because they had been exposed to someone with the virus — 53 men who shared a dorm with a man who died from pneumonia and was later found to have had COVID-19. None of the dorm-mates tested positive, a prison spokesperson said. That prison, the Pack Unit, is receiving extra scrutiny because it’s involved in a federal lawsuit over the agency’s handling of the pandemic.

Jeremy Desel, TDCJ’s spokesperson, said at the time that the agency could not conduct larger-scale testing without approval from the state health department. But a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services said TDCJ did not need approval to conduct mass testing.

The next week, TDCJ said it would offer testing to all employees at the Beto Unit, and it has since begun testing some high-risk inmates at Beto and a few other units with more inmates deemed to be high risk, Desel said.

That first set of numbers, released Thursday, showed 18 out of 200 asymptomatic inmates at two women’s prisons had the virus. Three hundred tests of asymptomatic Beto employees found 18 positive cases, on top of 20 employees who had already tested positive after visiting doctors because they were sick.

Jeff Ormsby, executive director of the Texas corrections branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said regularly available testing for all prison officers would give them peace of mind that they’re not hurting their families.

“They need to know that TDCJ has their back for coming in and exposing themselves,” he said.

But even as testing expands in Texas prisons, it is not the sole solution to the problem, Beyrer said.

“It has to be part of a larger control plan,” he said. “How are you going to protect people who have not had the virus? How are you going to make sure people who are symptomatic are in isolation and getting the medical attention they need?”

An evolving response

TDCJ has been both praised and harshly criticized for its efforts to control the coronavirus in its prisons.

When the first person in the agency’s care was confirmed to have the virus in late March, he was isolated and his dorm-mates were mostly restricted to their housing area. Prison employees checked their temperatures often, but although the agency has often said it has a plentiful supply of protective gear, the staff were not initially wearing gloves or masks.

That soon changed, and the prisons moved inmates through their units in smaller groups to the dining hall and recreation yards.

New policies have been enacted and routinely updated to include things like more cleaning by inmate janitors, masks for employees and more soap for prisoners. But inmates have said the policies are not enough and that unit-level employees were often not abiding by them anyway.

At the Pack Unit, near College Station, two older inmates sued the prison system in late March for failing to protect them from the potentially deadly virus. They asked the court to order TDCJ to provide things like face masks and hand sanitizer. They argued that inmate janitors weren’t given enough cleaning supplies to routinely clean the prisons and officers often worked without wearing their agency-issued cloth face masks.

A federal judge slammed the department in a mid-April ruling, calling for a long list of protective measures including inmate masks, extra toilet paper and testing of all the inmates at the geriatric prison. U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison dismissed TDCJ’s argument that giving hand sanitizer to inmates is dangerous because it contains alcohol and is flammable.

“Prisoners have been entrusted with manufacturing hand sanitizer at another TDCJ facility,” Ellison said in his ruling. “Denying [them] these potentially life-saving tools under such dire circumstances for such remote reasons evinces a disregard for the health and safety of the men at Pack Unit.”

But TDCJ stood firm, and a federal appeals court quickly blocked Ellison’s order, indicating it was too far-reaching. Days later, the prison system said it provided cloth face masks to all inmates — more than 700,000 of which had been made by prison labor as the pandemic hit the state, Desel said.

David Mains, president of the prisoner advocacy group Texas CURE, said TDCJ’s delivery of inmate face masks was tremendous.

“[Protective gear] is the best thing they can do,” he said. “They were shipping all the masks to all units.”

But much of TDCJ’s containment focus has been on locking down exposed prisons. More than 40,000 inmates at nearly 40 units are being kept in their cells and dorms because someone has tested positive in the last two weeks.

Lockdowns are a regular, but usually temporary, part of prison life, used to check for contraband and during disturbances. Prisoners are fed sack meals in their beds — often it’s just a small peanut butter sandwich — and they don’t have access to phones or the prison store to buy things like food, paper or hygiene supplies. During these medical lockdowns, advocates have pushed to give inmates more access to phone calls and tools like tablets so they can complete rehabilitation programs required before they can be released on parole.

“The instinct to contain is sensible, but you can’t just restrict, restrict, restrict without replacing some of the missing activities or contact in some other form,” Deitch, the UT lecturer, said.

Desel, the TDCJ spokesperson, said prison chaplains are working to relay messages back and forth between locked-down inmates and families, and staff at Beto started giving inmates five-minute phone calls on their way back from the showers.

“We have looked to find other solutions to being able to make sure that family and offenders are able to have some level of connection,” Desel said.

Mains said he appreciated the department holding regular conference calls with prisoner advocates and allowing some inmates in solitary confinement and areas without phone access before the pandemic to have quick phone calls as well. But phone calls aren’t happening everywhere despite top TDCJ officials’ intentions, according to inmates’ relatives.

“Some wardens are saying, ‘No, you’re on lockdown, you can’t have calls,” Mains said.

Desel said other units have started experimenting with short calls, but the general practice is to cut off phone access during a lockdown.

After waiting about two weeks to hear her husband’s voice, Natosha Sabir of Arlington got a phone call at the end of last month. He still can’t get anything from the prison store at Beto because the person running it contracted the virus, she said.

As the case count at the prison rises, Sabir is terrified and desperate for her husband’s release since he has already been approved for parole. She said he was supposed to go to a rehabilitation program in December at another unit, but no transfers aside from those deemed medically necessary are occurring now.

“His parole date is in June, and seeing they have such a high number of people who are infected, I just wish the people who were ready to be paroled, I just wish they would release them,” she said.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Jolie McCullough develops data interactives and news apps and reports on criminal justice issues for the Texas Tribune. She came to the Tribune in early 2015 from the Albuquerque Journal, where her work as a web designer and developer earned her national recognition. She was at the Journal for four years and specialized in interactive maps and data-driven special projects. She is a graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication; while there, she interned as a reporter and online producer at the Arizona Republic and served as the web editor of the student-run newspaper, the State Press.