Senator Nichols

Six prisoners at Anderson County's Beto Unit, now in isolation, have tested positive for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, 32 prison employees who may have had contact with those six prisoners were sent home last week to self-quarantine.

In another move to avert a potential explosion of COVID-19, the state Department of Criminal Justice, effective Friday, suspended most non-medical transfers between the state's 100 prisons.

“They assured us they were no longer moving inmates from one prison to another,” state Sen. Robert Nichols, (R.-Jacksonville), told the Herald-Press Monday. Nichols talked to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick Sunday and DCR Executive Director Bryan Collier on Monday. “The only transfers occurring are for medical issues.”

Transfers between the state's 250 county jails and prison processing centers continue.

DRC also started distributing cotton masks, manufactured in prison garment factories, to all staff, requiring them for employees working in prison units. TDRC employs 35,000 people.

The suspension of non-medical prisoner transfers came a day after Anderson County officials, alarmed at the potential spread of the coronavirus between prisons and communities, urged TDCR to suspend all transfers and take other measures to avoid a rapid spread of COVID-19.

Because prisoners live in close confinement, the coronavirus could “spread like wildfire,” Palestine Mayor Steve Presley told the Herald-Press Sunday. More corrections officers could then bring infections into the community, as could released prisoners, he said.

As of Sunday, Anderson County's Beto Unit, a maximum-security prison near Tennessee Colony, had more confirmed cases of COVID-19 than any other unit in Texas, the DRC website reported.

Statewide, DRC reported 18 positive tests from prisoners – far fewer than many smaller state prison systems. Owing to possible contact with infected persons, however, 3,700 prisoners are in medical restriction; 51 are in medical isolation with pending or positive COVID-19 tests.

The prison system is temperature-screening all persons entering units, sending anyone with a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher home to self-quarantine. Those measures are inadequate, Presley said, as many carriers have no symptoms.

“They have to take drastic measures and do it immediately,” Presley said. “I don't want the prison system to be the cause of high death rates in our community.

“The only transfers they should be doing is releases – and then only if prisoners are tested first and not infected.”

Nichols' office arranged a conference call Thursday between Presley, Anderson County Judge Robert Johnston, and Collier.

“They didn't have a good answer for how they would deal with the coronavirus if it runs rampant through the system, and how they would prevent guards and staff from infecting communities,” Presley said. “Are they prepared to halt it? The answer is 'no'.”

With roughly 130,000 inmates, Texas has one of the nation's largest prison systems.

To control prison populations during the COVID-19 pandemic, some states are releasing certain county jail prisoners, as well as non-violent state prisoners who are eligible for parole.

DRC is temperature-screening all persons entering units and sending anyone with a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher home to self-quarantine. Those measures are inadequate, Presley said, as many carriers have no symptoms.

Poor health care for prisoners, often delivered by private contractors, is a nationwide issue. Prisoners also are generally in worse health than the general population.

As of Sunday, Anderson County reported only one confirmed case of COVID-19. It's unclear, however, why the six cases in Beto are not included in the county's count.

On Friday, TDRC also started processing all tests at University of Texas Medical Branch, instead of at multiple labs around the state. COVID-19 tests now come back in 12 to 36 hours.

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