The state must act now to avert a public health tsunami stemming from its gargantuan prison system. 

Editor's note: Editorials, expressing the newspaper's opinion, generally run on Page 4. This one runs on the front page because of its high community importance and interest.

With nearly 140,000 inmates, Texas runs the second largest U.S. prison system, costing $3.5 billion a year. Despite recent reforms, it remains a bloated, insular, understaffed, and often unsafe behemoth.

Now that system threatens to unleash a public health tsunami. Inside crowded, sometimes unsanitary and poorly ventilated prisons, the coronavirus is spreading rapidly, infecting prisoners and corrections officers, who are likely to spread the virus to their communities.

In Anderson County's Beto Unit, a maximum-security prison in Tennessee Colony, confirmed cases were nearly doubling daily last week.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported six cases in Beto on Wednesday, 23 on Thursday, 43 on Friday, and 72 on Saturday.

With less than 3 percent of the state's prison population, the Beto Unit reported 43 percent of the state's 167 positive tests for COVID-19. Nearly 2,000 Beto inmates may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

With numerous asymptomatic cases and insufficient testing, the real number of coronavirus cases is likely far higher. Treating the most serious cases of COVID-19 could easily overwhelm prison medical resources and those of local hospitals. Beto holds more than 3,000 prisoners.

“It's like having a 3,000-bed passenger cruise ship,” said Dr. Robert McFarlane, a Palestine cardiologist. “We can't tell them not to dock or not to get off. They're already here.

“This is uncharted territory and I may be wrong – but I'd be shocked if it doesn't explode.”

Too little, too late,

Responding to the crisis, TDCJ has done too little, too late.

Even before Texas confirmed its first prisoner case of COVID-19 on March 24, 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 this challenge.” It wasn't.

One of his biggest blunders was not stopping all prison transfers when the department suspended prisoner visitation on March 13. TDCJ didn't stop all non-medical intra-prison transfers until about 11 days ago, after local officials, including Palestine Mayor Steve Presley and State Sen. Robert Nichols (R.-Jacksonville), raised the issue with Collier and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. The department continued prisoner transfers from some of the state's 250 county jails.

TDCJ staff members also failed to answer how they would handle an in-prison COVID-19 epidemic. The system lacks sufficient medical beds, as well as quarantine space, to meet potential demands. With double-bunked cell blocks, Texas prisons operate at 96 percent of rated capacity.

Nor has the administration provided adequate protective gear, such as masks and gloves, to officers and prisoners. Anderson County corrections employees told the Herald-Press last week they are wearing masks made from what appears to be underwear briefs, with no elastic on the bottom to keep the mask closed. Corrections officers should wear heavier duty N95 masks, Dr. Carolyn Salter of Palestine said.

Texas must act now

Collier has failed to get in front of the COVID-19 crisis; he should be fired. To help oversee COVID-19 mitigation efforts in the state's 100 prisons, Gov. Greg Abbott should appoint a commission of public health and criminal justice experts. This commission also could consider alleviating dangerous prison tensions, especially for the more than 26,000 inmates on lockdown.

Texas prisons should immediately halt all prisoner transfers, including those from local jails. They should test any new employees entering a prison, and eliminate any prisoner fees for sanitation products. TDCJ should aim to test all employees and prisoners, as soon as possible; the state should monitor employees sent home to quarantine to ensure compliance.

To free space for quarantines and social distancing, Texas ought to follow the lead of other states and identify non-violent inmates within 60 or 90 days of their release for early discharge.

Prison communities like Anderson County will need to increase precautions. “People have to assume (the coronavirus) is everywhere and be as cautious and vigilant as possible,” McFarlane said.

Finally, every prison should designate one employee to work with local communities on mitigation efforts. Communities and prisons share the same public health interests.

Prisons now pose the state's greatest public health risk. Texans should call upon state government to take drastic and immediate action to mitigate a potential public health tsunami – if it's not already too late.

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