In apparent retaliation for criticism from local officials on the handling of COVID-19, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice yanked its prisoner workers from the city of Palestine Tuesday. Hours later, however, after Mayor Steve Presley notified State Sen. Robert Nichols (R.-Jacksonville) and state Rep. Cody Harris (R.-Palestine) of TDCJ's action, Executive Director Bryan Collier apparently changed his mind.
City Manager Leslie Cloer said Gurney Unit Warden Larry Berger and two other TDCJ employees returned to the city Parks and Recreation Department late Tuesday to inform city staff that “it was a misunderstanding and they would allow inmates to return,” probably by August.
Presley informed the Herald-Press of the about-face in an email forwarded from the city manager's office at 7:48 p.m. – too late to revise the story for Wednesday's newspaper.
Earlier in the day, Presley told the Herald-Press a Gurney Unit corrections officer, when returning a city-owned van, told parks Director Patsy Smith that Collier ordered that minimum-security prisoners could no longer work for the city of Palestine. Collier told the prison to return the city's van and equipment, the officer said.
“I hate that they're doing this, but it proves we've been right,” Presley said early Tuesday afternoon. “It's terrible they would retaliate when we are just trying to keep our community safe.”
Last week, Presley criticized TDCJ in the Herald-Press for not acting quickly to stop prisoner transfers and take other precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons.
Under a decades-old agreement, prison work crews performed landscaping and other tasks at Palestine's cemetery and parks. The agreement called for the city to provide meals, transportation, and a porta potty for workers.
It's unknown whether the prisoners were paid. Nationwide, prisoners typically make 35 cents to 45 cents an hour for prison jobs, and slightly more for corrections industry jobs. Texas, however, has traditionally paid inmates nothing for work.
In Palestine, prisoner workers, accompanied by a corrections officer, came from the Gurney Unit, a transfer facility in Anderson County, six miles south of Tennessee Colony.
Presley has been especially concerned about another Anderson County prison – the Beto Unit. The maximum-security prison near Tennessee Colony has reported, by far, the most COVID-19 cases of any Texas prison. With less than 3 percent of the state's nearly 140,000 prisoners, the Beto Unit Tuesday reported more than 40 percent of the state's 236 prisoners testing positive for COVID-19
Presley, who urged the department two weeks ago to stop prisoner transfers, also said he's concerned TDCJ might be limiting COVID-19 tests to lower the number of confirmed cases.
On Tuesday, Beto reported 97 positive tests and 13 negative tests, with seven cases pending. That means 88 percent of the tests, excluding the seven pending, were positive – an unusually high percentage of positive cases.
“That suggests Beto might be testing too few people,” Presley said.
Meantime on Tuesday, Judge Robert Johnston reported a fourth confirmed case of COVID-19 in Anderson County. All four patients are isolated at home, under a physician's care. Two cases are travel-related; the other two were contracted at the workplace.
In a prepared statement Tuesday night, Cloer said the city appreciates the service TDCJ inmates have provided over the years to maintain city parks and recreation areas.
“It was disappointing that they would just show up unannounced to try to stop our long-standing agreement that has provided job skills for inmates and reduced the expenditures of city staff for mowing services," she stated.
“I hope TDCJ will honor its commitment to continue to provide support for the city of Palestine moving forward.TDCJ inmates who have provided good service to the city through their prior involvement in this program have been given references to help seek gainful employment upon release.”