Texas Prisons During Coronavirus

About the time the coronavirus began reaching into US prisons, in early March, TDCJ put all of the units in the system on permanent lockdown, and stopped all visitations in hopes of keeping the virus outside the prison walls. It was a false hope, of course. Even though family members of inmates weren’t allowed inside, prisons don’t run themselves. Stiles Unit, which sits on nearly 800 acres of coastal prairie, houses around 3,000 inmates, and has a staff of just over 750 employees. The operating theory was: If the inmates don’t travel between the prison and the outside world (they don’t, of course), then none of them could get the virus without coming in contact with someone who had been infected with it. Every twelve hours, though, a shift change sends some of the staff back into the outside world to their homes and to grocery stores and gas stations and restaurants, and so on, and brings more employees inside the razor wire. Prison employees were the only way the virus could reach the inmates. With daily shift changes, infection of the inmates was inevitable.

On July 5th, Steve called me. He was worried. He had been housed in one of Stiles Unit’s two gyms with about forty other inmates. The gyms aren’t air-conditioned. Neither is most of the rest of the prison, with the exception of a few areas like visitation rooms, staff offices and medical areas. The outside temperature reached 92° F that day, not unusual, maybe even a little low. Also, Stiles is just twenty miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, which keeps the humidity high, at or just under 100% for most the summer (which, in Southeastern Texas, unofficially starts in May and lasts until October), so it was not only hot but very muggy too. Instant sweat. He told me how unsafe he felt in there, not just the heat, but the fact that there were only four electrical plugs so they had several dozen electrical cords crisscrossing the floor of the gym, all running off those four plugs. The gym is locked to keep them in, so if there had been a fire all forty of them could have died.

On one of our phone calls, Steve told me that only nine guards showed up for work that day, and the absolute minimum number of guards and staff needed per twelve-hour shift is forty, and that provides just a skeleton crew. The normal required number per shift is around 120 staff members, but even that isn’t a fully-staffed shift. He also said that some of the inmates were being separately housed in air-conditioned sections of the prison because they worked for prison officials. He said that one of them had tested positive for COVID-19, but was removed from quarantine to do some work for one of the prison officials, and then returned to quarantine. The staff numbers were so short that day that they only counted inmates twice when they usually count them eight times during a shift.

I talked to Steve several times between March and July, usually once a week, just for five minutes at a time. Before this, each call would time out after thirty minutes and we would be cut off. If we wanted to talk longer, Steve could call me back and we’d talk for another thirty minutes. Sometimes, especially if we were discussing edits for Aggravated, or something detailed, we would talk for three or four thirty-minute segments. All the prison system is allowing the inmates during this lockdown, though, is one five-minute call per day to one person. Lately it seems like we have barely started talking before an automated voice says, “You have one minute left.”

Steve called again on July 25th to tell me he was finally back in the dorms. They don’t have air-conditioning there either, but they do have giant fans that at least circulate the hot air a bit. He wanted me to know that the prison system wasn’t handling this crisis well – or at all.

He said, “Every inmate who is in chronic care gets no care. It’s an automatic excuse for the medical staff to just sit around. And if you get one guy in there who might have coronavirus, it’s kind of like ‘Everybody, stay back,’ and then they shut the whole medical area down. They finally started bringing us our medication [because, in the lockdown, the inmates weren’t allowed to go to the medical area], but it’ll take two or three days. There was one guy had a heart attack because he hadn’t had his insulin for three days. The medical staff argues over whose shift it is and why they can or can’t do it [help an inmate]. It’s a disaster. The one guy who died, they tried for four days to get him to the hospital. This thing is out of control. In [name redacted] Building, they were knocking all the strike plates off the lockers in [name redacted] Pod, and using the strike plates to bust the doors open. Those guys are all G-4s and G-5s [inmates who were likely under restrictions of some sort].

Inmates are walking around all over SEG [Administrative Segregation: a section of the prison where inmates are more tightly locked down, and are usually denied the kind of privileges they would have in the general prison population – like freedom of movement]. There’s just not enough officers, and they’re [the prison system] lying about how many there are or aren’t. They’re just straight up lying. I mean, what they’re doing, they’re fudging the numbers. Because they’ve got all these guys who are saying “I’m going to kill myself,” so they’ve got 15 or 20 of the officers sitting in front of their cells [on suicide watch]. And they know who these guys are, because they constantly do this, but that uses some of the officers…”

A voice interrupted with the one-minute warning.

“…well, the other thing I was going to say is that some others are out with people who are in the hospital, but that only takes up about 25 officers out of about 140. They have nobody running this place today.”

I remembered something he had said during an earlier call. I asked, “And they don’t even have 140 officers during a regular shift, right?”

“Hell, no. I don’t think they could have. I have to walk pretty much all over the “farm” to get my insulin, and I don’t see enough guards for it to be that many.”

We were out of time. We wrapped up our conversation as quickly as we could before they cut us off.

At least three of Stiles’ inmates have died from coronavirus complications.  As of July 27th, 2020, according to the TDCJ’s COVID-19 Dashboard, 94% of the state prison units in Texas have had cases of coronavirus, and that they have given 156,462 tests to inmates (but Texas has over 200,000 inmates). Steve said everyone in Stiles was tested twice. Does that mean that the TDCJ only tested about 78,000 inmates (or about 40% of them)? They said that 14,917 inmates had positive tests. Does that mean that 9.53% of the inmates have had COVID-19? Or would it be 19.07% of inmates tested positive if they have only tested half as many inmates? Too many questions, and not enough transparency.

TDCJ’s Dashboard claims there are currently 124 active inmate cases at Stiles, and 602 inmates have had COVID-19 and have recovered. The dashboard also lists an additional 212 inmates who are on “Medical Restriction” (which Steve said means they are suspected positive cases but they don’t have the test results yet). The dashboard (unsurprisingly) doesn’t list any deaths for Stiles, even though there have been at least three.  It also lists 61 Stiles employees with active COVID-19 infections, plus 76 employees who have recovered.

Steve said he is about as safe as he can be under the circumstances. He even thinks he might have had it and recovered. He had a horrible cold/flu-like thing earlier in the year, before they started testing for COVID-19, and did lose his sense of taste and smell for a while. TDCJ is only testing for the active virus, not for antibodies, so there’s no way to tell, but he did tell me he’s taking precautions. Prisons are hotbeds for spreading germs anyway, so it’s scary to think what could happen, but I hope he is doing everything he can.

Michael Sirois

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