03-12 prison-02

Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials say they are staying ahead of COVID-19. Former corrections officers, however, are skeptical.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice houses roughly 135,000 offenders in its prisons. Officials stated no coronavirus, also called COVID-19, has been found within the system, and have assured the public they are taking steps to keep it that way.

“There are no indications of coronavirus within TDCJ facilities,” TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Diesel said, in a public service video on TDCJ's website. “We have long-standing protocols in place to prevent the spread of all infectious diseases.”

Since December, nearly 4,300 people have died due to COVID-19, including 28 in the United States.

The close quarters in which prisoners live, and more than 20,000 TDCJ employees work, has caused concern among offenders, staff, and their families about the possible spread of the virus.

With no vaccine, and with antibiotics being useless against a virus like COVID-19, Diesel said offenders and staff are urged to follow the same precautions they would for flu, or any other communicable disease.

Washing hands often for at least 20 seconds, and covering coughs and sneezes are both recommended. Eating a healthy diet, and cleaning and disinfecting common surfaces can also curtail the virus' spread.

Experts agree those showing any flu-like symptoms should avoid others, and seek medical help immediately – something not easy to do when incarcerated.

In a prepared statement, TDCJ officials said staff consistently monitors the offender population, and has a supply of personal protective equipment. Arrangements have also been made to receive additional protective equipment as needed.

Former TDCJ corrections officers, however, said their experiences make them doubt if TDCJ can, or will, do anything in response to the outbreak.

“They'll tell everyone that they are doing all they can, but not much of anything will be done,” former Coffield Unit C.O. Austin Trosino told the Herald-Press Wednesday. “They do nothing for the officers during the oppressive summer heat, and inmates only get an extra shower per day.”

Patient care technician Mikkael Vasquez, a former corrections officer, called TDCJ's assurances a joke.

“They can’t protect them from something that there is no solid information on,” Vasquez, 26, told the Herald-Press. “It’s impossible to tell staff to remain more than 6 feet from inmates, and inmates to remain 6 feet away from each other. To enforce a mask-wearing or hand-washing protocol would prove almost impossible, too.”

Officials said TDCJ will alter protocols, depending on the threat of the virus' spread. Temporary suspension of visitation, monitoring employees' travel plans, and suspending offender movements are just a few of the steps being considered.

“The safety of offenders in TDCJ custody, and the safety of our employees, is a priority at all times,” TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier said. “We continue to monitor the situation daily, in conjunction with other agencies. We will make any adjustments to our protocols as needed.”

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