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How about that other coronavirus hot spot?

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.

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8 Comments

  1. […] this? You can send a strike force to Amarillo if you want – you should also be prepared to send one to Palestine, too – but what exactly are they going to do to make this […]

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    What, exactly, is universal testing supposed to accomplish? There are 330M people in the US, including non citizens and illegal aliens. Let’s say we test 10M per day. Would everyone consider that to be a success, going full tilt? If President Biden had 10M tested per day, would you be lauding that fact? OK, so in just over a month, every single person in the US gets tested. Yay! How does that help? I could get tested today, then infected tomorrow, and so could every one of the other 330M people in the US.

    We could test every single inmate and employee in every prison over the span of a week, and staff and prisoners could still become infected a few days after they were tested.

    You know what else we could test every single American for? Influenza. And that would be just about as effective, which is to say, it wouldn’t be.

    The only way I could see testing having any kind of negligible impact is if we could somehow test all 330 million people all on the same day, and then immediately drag off anyone who is positive to an internment camp to be sequestered, but then there’s that pesky chance of those being dragged off to infect the shock troops charged with dragging them off to the camps. We would also have to stop all immigration after the test day, so no one new could come in and infect those who didn’t have the virus. And here’s the really upsetting part. That means we’d also have to stop illegal aliens from entering the US. Are you folks really prepared to do that? Illegal immigration is a basic human right. Are you prepared to infringe on the rights of illegal aliens, too? I mean, telling citizens they have to sit idly by and watch their businesses go up in smoke is one thing, but now you are attacking potential illegal aliens, too. just how far do you want to take this?

  3. Ross says:

    So, the tldr version of Bill’s screed is “I don’t care how many people die, as long as I am not inconvenienced in the least”. Toss in a few gratuitous anti-immigrant statements, and it’s a perfect Trumpster statement.

    We get it Bill, you are just a liberty loving guy who wants to do what he wants to do, regardless of the impact on others. If others die, so what, you will still be you.

    Absent testing, we have no clue as to what the spread is, what the potential for additional deaths is, or how to plan. I’ll ask the same question I’ve asked others, without any real answers, what are you going to do if the number of deaths spikes to 10,000 per day, or 25,000 per day?

  4. Manny says:

    Bill are you a couple of days behind in the latest Trump defense that is given to the bots and paid people.

    If, Trump had acted in a timely manner, this country would not have had to suffer as much.

    From former lifetime Republicans, Mourning in America”.

    https://youtu.be/t_yG_-K2MDo

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    Ross,

    Let’s say 25,000 people are dying each day of the Wuhan virus. OK, fine. Then you and I will have hard choices to make about what we do and don’t do. The key here is, WE are making choices for ourselves, we aren’t having choices shoved down our throats.

    If it was up to people like you, we’d all still be speaking the Queen’s English here, because our great experiment in freedom and self rule would never have happened.

    Manny,

    I don’t know why you think a group of humiliated never Trumpers impacts me in the slightest. Those are all people connected with losing 2016 (R) presidential campaigns that haven’t gotten over the butthurt of being soundly defeated by a boorish, loudmouth, uncouth guy that only voters could love. Trump hijacked their party, and they don’t like it. Don’t you question why, since Trump, there’s been a love fest between the Obamas, Clintons, Bushes, McCains, Romneys, etc.? Remember when Bush, McCain, and Romney were all racist killers, binders of women, etc., but now, with Trump at the helm, they are all just one big happy family of elder statesmen? They all were together in famously NOT voting for Trump. The fact that Trump is despised by all the right people makes me love him more, despite his flaws.

    [insert Captain Phillips meme]

    “Look at me. Trump is captain now.”

  6. Manny says:

    Bill you are a paid troll in all probability.

    By voters you mean racists, bigots, Jew haters, Nazis, and those type of people.

    Trump and people like you have destroyed this country, nearly 20% unemployment, 3,000 people, at least, a day dying because your god Trump, failed to act like any reasonable person would do. I think that by the time the November election rolls around that more than 250,000 Americans will have died because of people like you and Trump.

    I can understand why your kind of people, I use the word “people” although I have doubts, because polls are showing that Trump is losing or on the verge of losing even in very red states, 8 points behind in Arizona.

    There is mourning in America, and it is Trump and your kind of people that have brought it to this country.

    https://youtu.be/t_yG_-K2MDo

  7. Tom in Lazybrook says:

    Universal testing, contact tracing, and quarantines are exactly how you manage a pandemic, when theres no treatment. Theyre even more needed in closed environments like cruise ships, prisons, nursing homes, and close quartered manufacturing. Guess what are other amplification vectors for disease transmission? Schools and churches. Thats coming soon and will be a disaster if testing/tracing and quarantining isnt fixed soon.

    The prison situation is a messy one. A relative of mine is an elected Republican criminal judge in another Conservative state. He actually tries to do the right thing most of the time. He is terrified about the prospect of having to release massive numbers of violent prisoners when the prisons become unmanageable as they become overrun with COVID. He asked me…”who is gonna work at a prison where Covid has overrun the facility?”. Or “What happens when we have to close a large maximum security prison (or multiple ones) and we have no places to put the people in those prisons while we decontaminate the existing prisons?” And “How are we gonna deal with the healthcare issues? Most of these facilities are located outside of urban centers and away from medical infrastructure.” A place like Huntsville or Palestine cant handle this. Then there’s the cost of all this as well. Theyre trying to plan, but the problems are really daunting.

    We may have the national guard doing prison guard work soon. Hope they all dont get sick when we need them for a hurricane recovery action.

  8. brad says:

    Bill,

    I am impressed by your conversion of what must be a word soup talking points memo you receive from Trump 2020 campaign into English?