The Texas Department of Criminal Justice should scrap plans to resume inmate transfers from county jails into state prisons.
More than two months after the state halted such transfers to mitigate COVID-19, the virus is killing more prisoners than ever. Even so, TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel stated Monday the department, on a limited basis, will start transfers again from county jails to state prisons next month.
Jail-to-prison transfers shouldn't resume without mandatory testing and expedited paroles to create more space for prisoner care, and safer mitigation practices for employees and inmates.
On Friday TDCJ announced four more COVID-related prisoner deaths, raising the total to 79. That's more than double the number from a month earlier. Elderly and infirm inmates made up many of the deaths. Eight employees also died as of Friday, up one from a month earlier.
Even before Texas confirmed its first prisoner case of COVID-19 in March, a public health expert at the University of Texas warned the coronavirus would “spread like wildfire” in Texas prisons. TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier said then the agency was “well prepared” to handle the challenge. It wasn't.
Following criticism from Anderson County officials, TDCJ has conducted about 150,000 COVID-related tests on prisoners and employees. The department, however, is still playing catchup. This is hardly the time to back-pedal.
As of Monday, 8,180 prisoners had tested positive. That's 2,711 more than the month before. Of Texas' 106 prisons, 82 had confirmed and active cases of COVID-19. Twenty-one prisoner were locked down.
On the plus side, nearly 6,800 state prisoners also have recovered from COVID-19, reducing the number of confirmed active cases over the last month from 4,000 to 1,000.
The figures, while showing progress on some fronts, in no way suggest Texas prisons have COVID-19 under control. Infected employees continue to carry the coronavirus into their communities. Most of Anderson County's 117 confirmed cases of COVID-19 are directly related to the county's five prisons: the Beto, Coffield, Gurney, Michael, and Powledge Units.
Typically, 3,000 to 5,000 prisoners a month move from county jails into the state prison system. Collier said the state would start “slowly and safely” by initially moving about 250 prisoners a week into state prisons.
“I think it's a mistake,” Palestine Mayor Steve Presley told the Herald-Press editorial board. “By moving guards and inmates, they'll continue to see a rise in cases and, with it, increased risks to our communities.”
With close-quartered, poorly ventilated double-bunked cell blocks, prisons have become COVID hot spots, Gov. Greg Abbott said two weeks ago, after positive cases in Texas prisons had jumped nearly six times over the previous seven weeks.
The rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases among Texas state prisoners – about one in 20 – is more than 10 times higher than the state's overall rate.
First test and release
Resuming prisoner transfers from county jails will crowd a prison system of 140,000 inmates. Operating normally at 96 percent of capacity, the prison system can't manage a highly infectious virus that requires isolation and social distancing.
Medical screenings for symptoms, such as a fever, are ineffective; an estimated 20 to 50 percent of carriers of the coronavirus don't exhibit symptoms.
COVID-19 tests will become faster, more efficient, and more reliable with soon-to-be-available antigen kits producing results in 15 minutes, instead of delays of two to five days for lab work, Dr. Carolyn Salter, a Palestine physician, told the Herald-Press.
Aside from universal testing, Texas prisons need more space to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and care for the sick. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles should expedite the release of parole-eligible and infirm inmates the state can safely monitor in lower-cost community settings.
Freeing 5,000 or more beds by paroling non-violent prisoners into supervised community settings would pose no threat to public safety. Nearly 20 states started such releases in April.
A far greater threat to public safety is a COVID epidemic inside the state prison system.
Making matters worse, thousands of paroles have been delayed because prisoners can't access pre-release programs required by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. It's time for TDCJ to think creatively. Released prisoners could finish required programs in community supervision. They also could begin looking for jobs, training, housing, and, if necessary, treatment programs.
For many prisoners, crowding and sickness, along with no recreation or access to programs, have created practically unbearable conditions.
In interviews with the Herald-Press, family members of prisoners have cited unsanitary conditions, rancid and inadequate food, and phone calls cut off when inmates start describing prison life. (TDCJ officials deny those allegations.)
Locked down and outside the public's view, prisoners get little sympathy: You did the crime, so the saying goes, now do the time.
Judgments handed down by the court, however, do not include death sentences from COVID-19; nor do they mandate excessively harsh conditions of confinement that arguably violate the U.S. Constitution.
Without universal testing and expedited releases, expanding prisoner transfers in Texas would jeopardize whatever public health gains TDCJ has made in mitigating COVID-19.