Palestine Mayor Steve Presley 

Anderson County's Beto Unit, a maximum-security prison near Tennessee Colony, has six confirmed cases of COVID-19, the most of any unit in the state, the Department of Criminal Justice reported Sunday. Meantime, alarmed at the potential spread of the coronavirus from prisons into communities, local officials want prisoner transfers temporarily halted.

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

With roughly 130,000 inmates, Texas has one of the nation's largest prison systems. Transfers are made continually between more than 100 Texas prisons, as well as prison processing centers and Texas' 250 county jails.

Palestine Mayor Steve Presley and the office of state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, raised the issue of prisoner transfers and COVID-19 on a conference call Thursday with TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier and  health officials. Even so, Presley said he didn't know about the Beto cases, until reading TDCJ's website Sunday night.

“I'm furious,” Presley told the Herald-Press Sunday. “The department is simply not doing all it should to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.”

Presley said Nichols planned to speak with Collier and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Monday.

Late last month, Presley asked state Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, to talk to prison officials about stopping prisoner transfers. Presley said the state has slowed transfers but didn't plan to stop them.

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

If corrections officers bring the virus into a prison, Presley said, it would likely spread “like wildfire” because of the close-confinement of prisoners. Then numerous corrections officers could contract the virus and bring it into the community, as could released prisoners, he said.

“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.

“Are they prepared to halt it? The answer is 'no'.”

The prison system 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.

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

To control prison populations, some states are releasing county jail prisoners, as well as non-violent state prisoners who are eligible for parole.

As of Sunday, Anderson County reported only one confirmed case of COVID-19. That doesn't include, however, the six prisoner cases in Beto. 

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