Steve Pressley

Citing public health risks from COVID-19, Palestine Mayor Steve Presley said Wednesday he opposed plans by prison administrators to resume transferring prisoners from county jails to state prisons.

“I think it's a mistake,” Presley told the Herald-Press Wednesday. “By moving guards and inmates, they'll continue to see a rise in cases and, with it, increased risks to our communities."

Anderson County's five prisons – the Beto, Coffield, Gurney, Michael, and Powledge Units – totaled 886 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since April 1. Beto and Michael accounted for 733 of those cases.

Anderson County's prisons also have had two COVID-related prisoner deaths: James Matthews, 68, on April 13; and Jeffrey Davis, 45, on May 11. Both prisoners had been locked up in the Beto Unit.

Effective July 1, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will resume taking inmates from the state's 250 county jails “on a limited basis.” TDCJ will start with about 250 inmates a week. The state stopped the transfers on April 13, following complaints by Presley and other local officials.

TDCJ started a massive testing initiative in May. Since then, more than 125,000 tests were conducted on employees and prisoners.

“TDCJ has tested more individuals than any other correctional system in the country,” Executive Director Bryan Collier said. “With this baseline information, the agency is prepared to slowly and safely begin the process of receiving county jail offenders.”

With about 140,000 inmates, Texas has the nation's second largest state prison system.

Anderson County Judge Robert Johnston said he wasn't sure if TDCJ's decision to start transfers from local jail would aggravate community health risks. “I think it will be OK,” he said, “but the more you move people around, the higher the risk.”

Economically, he said, the county will benefit by not housing jail inmates for extra time, including food and medical costs.

Meantime, Anderson County on Tuesday increased the official number of COVD-19 cases nearly 10-fold, reaching 989 cases. Tuesday's surge put Anderson County 18th among the state's 250 counties for COVID-19 cases, Johnston said Tuesday. One new case Wednesday brought the county's total to 990.

The reason for the big increase: the state this week decided to count COVID cases differently. Now, prison deaths are added to the county's total where the prison is located, regardless of where the prisoner is from. Before this week, COVID-related deaths in state prisons were tallied under a separate list from the Department of Criminal Justice.

Anderson County's five prisons accounted for 886, or nearly 90 percent, of the county's COVID cases.

Aside from the prisons, Anderson County reported only 104 confirmed cases Wednesday; of those, 79 had recovered. The county added one case Tuesday, the first new case since last Thursday. Outside of the prisons, the county has reported no COVID-related deaths.

Prison visitation was suspended March 13.

Anderson County reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 31.

Cases are rising across Texas, as the governor continues to re-open the state. Statewide, Texas has seen a 30 percent increase in COVID-related hospitalizations since Memorial Day.

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