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‘A perfect storm': Health experts warn of rapid COVID-19 spread in Texas prisons

Health experts and criminal justice advocates are pushing for early inmate releases to alleviate crowding

By Julian Gill
Houston Chronicle

GRIMES COUNTY, Texas — Laddy Valentine sleeps in a Texas prison dorm with 52 other inmates, all living in cubicles fewer than six feet apart in the Pack Unit where he’s incarcerated.

In the unit’s chow hall, proper social distancing would require one inmate per table. But officials say it would take 14 hours to feed the unit under those rules.

Valentine, 69, is at the center of an effort to enforce strict social distancing in state lockups. The guidelines that have dictated daily life in the outside world to combat spread of the coronavirus are nearly impossible to follow in facilities built to house people in close quarters, said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, CEO of Harris Health System.

Porsa, who also specializes in correctional healthcare and currently serves as vice chair of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, said prisoners are inherently more prone to infectious diseases. Inmates who contract the disease without showing symptoms unknowingly might pass it to a guard or other inmates in their dorm. In the event of an outbreak, sick inmates or guards threaten to overwhelm hospitals or spark a wave of infections in the community, Porsa said.

That’s why health experts and criminal justice advocates are pushing for early inmate releases to alleviate crowding - a measure that 22 other states have adopted in one form or another, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

“It becomes a perfect storm for a disease like the coronavirus to spread,” Porsa said.

TDCJ response

Valentine is one of two prisoners in the Pack Unit who recently won a class-action lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that alleged prison officials have not done enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the facility.

A federal judge last week granted the prisoners’ request for hand sanitizer, cloth masks and widespread testing at the Navasota unit, which houses inmates who are over age 50 or have pre-existing health conditions. The judge also ordered strict enforcement of social distancing during “transportation necessary for prisoners to receive medical treatment or be released.”

TDCJ is appealing the decision. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton requested a stay of the order, saying the federal judge had “no authority to overrule Texas’s decisions about how to manage its scarce resources.”

At a phone hearing last Thursday, attorneys for TDCJ argued that prison officials have followed CDC guidance for social distancing at correctional facilities. They quarantine inmates who were possibly exposed to a known case and further isolate those who show symptoms or test positive. They stagger times when prisoners visit common areas like chow halls and day rooms. TDCJ suspended inmate transfers from county jails and halted non-medical transfers. TDCJ transferred a large portion of sick prisoners to two units in Brazoria County for better access to medical care.

But officials acknowledged at the hearing that it’s not possible to maintain social distancing at all times.

Release complications

The most logical step to improve social distancing would be early inmate releases, said Porsa and Dr. Paul Klotman, president and CEO of the Baylor College of Medicine.

Klotman added that inmates should be tested upon their release and continue to quarantine on their own, if possible.

“If you travel from New York City right now or Chicago, they expect you to go into a quarantine for 14 days, because you’re coming from a high prevalence community,” he said. “Well, our prisons, that’s a mini New York City.”

A group of Texas criminal justice advocates recommended ways to reduce the population, including expediting parole reviews for medically vulnerable inmates and releasing people already approved for parole.

Oklahoma, Georgia and Iowa are among 22 states that have moved to reduce their prison populations, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit focused on educating people about mass incarceration. State Sen. John Whitmire, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said that’s a long shot in Texas.

“I’ve actually worked in that direction,” said Whitmire, a Democrat. But efforts to come up with lists for early release have run into political reality. “We unfortunately work in a political setting, and Governor Abbott doesn’t agree.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

And seeking early release in the courts is similarly difficult in Texas. Houston criminal defense attorney Josh Schaffer said lawyers can either argue in front of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles or push to get the case in front of Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals.

Both avenues take months of work, he said.

“The system that was built on the judicial side is not equipped to deal with this crisis,” Schaffer said “These prisons are going to turn into houses on fire with the doors locked and people burning up inside.”


TDCJ houses roughly 145,000 people. As of Wednesday, at least 993 total inmates had been tested for COVID-19, of which 594 tested positive. Among the 1,299 employees and contractors tested, 252 tested positive.

The virus has played a role in the death of at least five prisoners and one guard, according to TDCJ. Another guard died earlier this month after testing positive, but his exact cause of death is under investigation. Six more inmate deaths are also under investigation.

The agency announced the fourth and fifth inmate deaths Wednesday. One of the men, 68-year-old James Nealy, was not tested until his autopsy because he did not show symptoms.

Porsa and Klotman say it’s impossible to know whether asymptomatic inmates with COVID-19 are spreading the disease without expanding the testing criteria. So far, the focus has remained on symptomatic inmates.

“The thing right now is identifying people who are acutely ill who may need care beyond what we can provide at the prison,” said Dr. Owen Murray, vice president of correctional managed care at UTMB, which is doing most of the testing. “It’s really based on targeting those people who are sick.”

Right now, untested inmates in dorm settings might touch door handles or other commonly used items before they start experiencing symptoms, Porsa said.

“You can infect the entire dorm before that person becomes symptomatic,” Porsa said. “In the dormitory setting, obviously it’s a lot more dangerous.”

Klotman compared that scenario to a cruise ship of infected people.

“This just happens to be a forgotten cruise,” he said.


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