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Texas Prisons Won't Accept New County Jail Inmates As Coronavirus Spreads In Lockups

William G. McConnell Unit
Jennifer Whitney
For The Texas Tribune
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice William G. McConnell Unit at Chase Field in Beeville.

Starting Monday, the Texas prison system is no longer taking new inmates from county jails, according to an agency letter obtained by The Texas Tribune.

Bryan Collier, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said in a letter to county sheriffs Saturday that he recognized the move would put an additional strain on counties, but he said the action is necessary. 

The new coronavirus has been confirmed in at least 10 county jails, and the number of state prisoners infected nearly doubled in one day last week, according to state agency reports.

“Halting the intake of new inmates will allow the TDCJ to fight this virus without further exposing both county and state inmates,” Collier wrote.

Reference: TDCJ notification letter of county jail intake suspension

As of Saturday, 167 state prisoners and 72 TDCJ employees had tested positive for the virus at units throughout the state, TDCJ reported. And one prisoner and one correctional officer from different units have died after contracting the virus. Twenty of the state's more than 100 prison facilities were on lockdown after an inmate or employee had tested positive, restricting prisoner movement and activity.

Normally, counties send commitment papers over to TDCJ after an inmate has been handed a prison sentence, and the state prison system has to take them in within 45 days, according to state statute. That statute has now been waived during the coronavirus disaster, Collier said. The agency had already halted intake from counties if inmates in the jail had tested positive.

"These numbers go up each day, and we must do more to deny this virus the opportunity to spread," he wrote.

Some counties have worked to reduce the number of people in disease-prone jails, where people quickly flow in and out from behind bars and live in cramped quarters. Without sending inmates to the state prison system, those populations could instead increase. In Dallas County, where the first county jail inmate tested positive and now more than 30 inmates have the virus, County Judge Clay Jenkins said last month, however, that he understood why TDCJ would stop intake from the jail after an inmate tested positive.

"I don’t want to send anybody COVID positive to [TDCJ]. I totally get that," he said in a press conference at the time.

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.