You know, prisons?
For more than fifty years, Palestine, Texas, has been known as a prison town. Most of the time, that hasn’t been a problem.
True, it was a bit controversial in the 1960s when the Texas corrections department bought up 21,000 acres in this part of East Texas and built the biggest men’s prison in the state. According to Ben Campbell, a local historian and self-described “old geezer,” locals fretted at the time about the danger of escaping prisoners. The state provided steady jobs with decent benefits, however, and over the years one prison expanded into five, which can hold nearly 14,000 men. Now, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is the largest employer in Anderson County.
“People love it and they hate it—it’s jobs, but it’s low-paying jobs,” Campbell said. “They get decent benefits, so it’s a positive for the county.”
But when coronavirus hit, the county’s biggest employer became its biggest threat. More than 2,000 workers go in and out of the prisons—and have unwittingly been carrying coronavirus with them. More than 30 of them had tested positive for COVID-19 by Friday evening, according to the prison system, in a county with only 30 reported cases total (not all of the guards live there). There’s just one hospital in the county, the 150-bed Palestine Regional Medical Center.
“People are trying to be supportive and understanding of the guards needing to do their jobs,” said Matt Kuhl, the son of a retired corrections officer, who runs the “Happening Now in Anderson County, TX!” Facebook group. “But the general consensus is that it’s a threat to have so many cases nearby.”
By April 2, the county already had its first confirmed COVID-19 case, and its chief executive issued a shelter-in-place order. The county also imposed an order limiting how many family members could enter big-box stores at one time because so many people had been congregating at the Walmart.
None of these restrictions could stave off the coronavirus explosion inside Anderson County prisons. The following week, the state corrections agency announced six men at the George Beto Unit had tested positive, and the maximum-security prison quickly became the biggest hotspot among the state’s 104 prisons.
“When it started spinning up out there at Beto, within a few days it was up to 30 cases and then 70,” said Peyton Williams, who has lived in Palestine for two years and works in banking. “It seemed to sneak up pretty quickly.”
Ten days after those first positives, Beto had more than 100 cases and, suddenly, a lot of people started worrying. Mayor Steve Presley sparred with prison administrators he accused of misrepresenting basic facts, like whether men were being moved from prison to prison, and thus possibly spreading the disease.
“They told us at one point that they had stopped all transfers except medical—and they eventually did, but they kept transferring them for about a week, just back and forth between prisons,” Presley told me recently. “Did they think we couldn’t find out in a town this small? That people wouldn’t tell us?”
Usually, he said, the city and the state agency get along. Everyone in town has seen vans full of men in prison-white uniforms on their way to trim grass at the city cemetery.
Prisoners had already stopped work for the city in early April when Presley vented to the local newspaper, telling the Palestine Herald-Press that he was furious that the corrections agency was not prepared to handle an outbreak. A state worker then said prisoners would no longer work at the city’s cemetery and parks. The mayor initially suspected it was in retaliation, but the TDCJ later said it was a misunderstanding and the change was not permanent.
That was two weeks ago, but problems continue. Prisoners at two other nearby units have tested positive, and the outbreak at Beto is still growing. Last week it topped two hundred cases.
Meanwhile, more people in Palestine are getting sick. “Most of the cases are prison-related,” said Dr. Carolyn Salter, a local physician who was once the mayor. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
I know the mere mention of this subject will send some people fluttering to the fainting chairs, but discuss it we must. And hot tip, lots and lots of people go into and out of these prisons (and jails) every day. If those places are ginormous breeding grounds for coronavirus – and they are – what did you think was going to happen? And more to the point, what are we going to do about it?
The new coronavirus is fully entrenched in the Texas prison system, confirmed to have infected more than 1,600 inmates and employees at dozens of units. At least 25 infected prisoners and staff members have died. But, like in the rest of the state, the scope of the virus’ spread behind bars is still largely unknown because testing has been limited.
As of Saturday, TDCJ had tested about 1,700 symptomatic inmates for the virus — about 1% of the state’s prison population, according to TDCJ reports. More than 70% of them have tested positive for the coronavirus. That’s a staggeringly high rate compared with the state overall, where less than 10% of the relatively low number of Texans tested had positive results. (Prisoners are largely excluded from state case counts.)
Epidemiologists say more testing is needed in prisons because they are incubators for disease, which can endanger not only prisoners and staff, but surrounding communities as well.
“People tend to think of them as separated from the rest of society, but that is not the case,” said Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Most [prison outbreaks] have begun with introductions from staff.”
And infectious disease experts and prisoner rights advocates say much more needs to be done, starting with mass testing of inmates and reducing the overall prisoner population.
“Until they start doing mass testing, I don’t think they’re going to get a hold of the problem there,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer and prison conditions expert at the University of Texas law school. “There are going to continue to be deaths, and it’s going to continue spreading to the communities both through staff and people who are released and people who are sent to community hospitals.”
But Texas has one of the lowest testing rates in the country. State Rep. James White, who leads the Texas House Corrections Committee, said the prison system is doing the best it can with the resources it has.
“Whatever we’re challenged with in the so-called free society, we have those same challenges, if not exacerbated, in the incarcerated population,” the Hillister Republican said. “We’re having challenges with testing like in the state.”
Releasing some prisoners early — which could include elderly inmates eligible for parole, people close to finishing their sentences or those who have already been granted parole but are still behind bars — is a decision that falls to Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, but neither has indicated any plans to do so.
After some law enforcement officials and conservatives argued that freeing more inmates could lead to a spike in crime when police are already stretched thin, Abbott came out against more releases from lockups.
“We want to prevent the spread of #COVID19 among prison staff & inmates. But, releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not the solution,” Abbott said in a March tweet.
But Seth Prins, an assistant professor of epidemiology and sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, said it’s too late to rely solely on mitigation in the prisons.
“Really the only effective strategy is to get as many people out as possible,” he said. “I wish there was a middle-of-the-road answer, but there’s not.”
We could have done more aggressive testing early on, to at least try to isolate the sick from the not-yet-sick, and we could have been more aggressive about releasing low-risk inmates and speeding up the release of those who were going to be getting out soon anyway, but that ship has sailed. What we now get to live with, thanks to Greg Abbott and Donald Trump and their complete failure to provide for universal testing is this constant source of infection, which will mostly but not entirely fall on the people who live near, work in, or are incarcerated in these places. As with pretty much everything else about this virus, it didn’t have to be this way, but here we are.