Updated at 2:30 p.m. to include information about the first confirmed death at Hutchins State Jail in Dallas County.
As Texas businesses begin to slowly open back up on Friday, one in three state-run jails and prisons remain on lockdown as the coronavirus continues to spread among staff and inmates.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported on Thursday that 1,118 inmates have contracted the virus to date and 1,069 are now in medical isolation. COVID-19 related deaths, meanwhile, have recently jumped, with nine inmate and staff deaths since April 23, according to an analysis by The Dallas Morning News.
Gov. Greg Abbott said restaurants, retail shops and movie theaters could begin reopening on Friday at a limited capacity. The move comes as the state reported its biggest one-day increase in deaths on Thursday.
Within the roughly 100 state-run jails and prisons, there has been a steady increase in coronavirus cases in April. About three out of five inmates tested were positive for the virus, according to current agency data. But until this week, only inmates with symptoms were being tested.
New results from targeted testing of vulnerable inmates point to a much lower infection rate.
“It’s the natural state of affairs of the progression of this virus,” agency spokesman Jeremy Desel told The News. “This is a situation that no one has ever had to deal with before and the agency is doing a good job of being forward-looking, proactive and rolling with the punches that the virus is giving us.”
Since April 6, 16 inmates and 5 staff members are believed to have died due to complications from the disease. The most recent death the agency said is potentially related to COVID-19 was that of James Coleman, a 53-year-old correctional officer, who worked his last shift at the Middleton Unit in Abilene on Sunday.
He collapsed at home the next day.
The agency is investigating 11 deaths for links to the virus. Within the last few days, it has also begun testing some inmates who are at higher risk of dying from the disease, those over age 65 with preexisting conditions or other risk factors.
The agency reported on Thursday some of the preliminary results of this targeted testing at two women’s prisons. At the Murray Unit in Gatesville, 54 of the 72 inmates tested were negative for the coronavirus; at the Young Unit in Dickinson, none of the 128 inmates tested had the virus.
“It’s not all doom and gloom in the testing department,” Desel said.
According to data on the department’s website, more than 1,000 employees who volunteered to be tested did not have the virus. More than 200 inmates and 54 staff have recovered.
In response to the outbreak, state-run jails and prisons are no longer accepting inmates from county jails and some sick offenders have been transferred to units nearer to medical facilities. Any units with even one confirmed case of the virus — 40 facilities to date — have been put on lockdown, meaning inmate movement is restricted until 14 days after the case is cleared.
Of the 21 reported deaths, 12 are linked to just two prisons — the Wynne Unit in Huntsville and the Telford Unit in New Boston. Wynne houses many elderly inmates and Telford is in a rural area about 30 miles west of Texarkana. The youngest inmate to die was 53.
Two other prisoners died after being found unresponsive in their cells. One of them had not shown symptoms of the virus, the agency said, so he was not tested. The second man, whose death was confirmed Thursday evening, tested positive for the virus on April 9 and was pronounced dead in the prison four days later.
On Friday, Dallas County officials reported a 50-year-old inmate who’d recently been transferred from Hutchins State Jail to a nearby hospital had also died due to the coronavirus. This is the first death reported at Hutchins, the only state-run facility in Dallas. State jails, as opposed to county jails, house inmates convicted of certain felonies that carry a two-year maximum sentence. The prison agency has not yet announced this death, so it is not included in the 21 inmate deaths to date.
More than 100,000 inmates are incarcerated in Texas state jails and prisons. The infection and death rates here do not include coronavirus cases in county jails.
Texas is one of only a handful of states publicly reporting how many employees have contracted the virus, according to The Marshall Project. At the Beto and Murray Units, where the agency conducted surveillance testing, just 25 of the 399 employees tested came up positive for the coronavirus.
But the union representing prison employees wants all staff members and inmates to be tested.
“We’re asking them to be proactive. Everything they’ve done so far is reactive,” said Jeff Ormsby, executive director of AFSCME’s Texas Organizing Council, referring to the state prison agency.
The union is also calling on the department to lock down all prisons to slow the spread.
Desel said the agency is not contemplating this move. To mitigate tensions in units that are on lockdown, some inmates are now allowed to make brief phone calls on their way back from the showers. The agency has also performed thousands of welfare checks, he said, and set up new hotlines for inmate families.
There is no shortage of personal protective equipment, Desel added, and inmates and staff have been provided a cloth mask.
Sharon McKinney, the director of programs for the Texas Inmate Families Association, said while she understands why some prisons are locked down, she wishes the conditions there were better. Inmate families are hearing complaints about the quality of food and difficulty getting messages out, which exacerbates their sense of isolation.
But, the biggest problem right now is that some inmates who have been approved for parole are not being released because they first need to complete reentry programming, McKinney added.
“I do think that they’re doing an OK job,” she said, noting the current known infection rate is a small percentage of the total population. “But the numbers are still growing.”