Severe COVID-19 outbreaks threaten the lives of people incarcerated across Texas. Several jail and prison facilities in the state are breaking national records for coronavirus infections and deaths in carceral settings. In this climate, some local residents and activists are protesting against inhumane conditions and urging officials to release people to safety.
The Texas state prison system has now had more incarcerated people die of COVID-19 than any other, with 94 deaths to date. Ten employees of the state’s prisons have also died. Since March, 12,000 incarcerated people and 2,100 employees have tested positive for coronavirus.
The system, run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), implemented widespread testing about two months ago. But because prisons aren’t following up with additional rounds of testing, health experts worry that the full extent of infections remains hidden.
This is in part because the epidemiological situation behind bars is always changing. Prisons have a constant flow of people in and out, including guards, staff and other visitors, all of whom can transmit coronavirus either inside or outside the prison.
Some of the worst-hit prisons in Texas currently include the Mark W. Stiles Unit near Beaumont, where over 670 people, or a quarter of the whole population, have active coronavirus cases. At the H.H. Coffield Unit in Anderson County, over 750 incarcerated people—or one in five—have coronavirus. The Dominguez State Jail in San Antonio, the Price Daniel Unit in Snyder, and the J. W. Hamilton Unit in Bryan also each have at least a quarter of their incarcerated population affected by coronavirus.
All those facilities are run by the TDCJ. But federal facilities in Texas are also severely impacted. The Federal Correctional Institute (FCI) in Seagoville, just outside of Dallas, now has the highest number of coronavirus cases of any prison in the country. Nearly two in five incarcerated people at the prison, 37 percent, are positive for coronavirus.
A state commission also reports that over 1,100 persons held in Texas county jails are positive for coronavirus.
This crisis in the second-most populated US state has turned family members and other residents into activists. Outside San Antonio, Michelle Trevino, the wife of a man held in FCI Seagoville, organized a protest outside the prison over the weekend.
Her husband, with less than a year left on his sentence, qualifies for home confinement but has been denied. “There are people who qualify who’ve done very well, who really want to turn their lives around,” she told local outlet NBC DFW. “He’s hot. He says it feels like it’s about 110 degrees.” The prison’s air conditioning system is reportedly broken.
In San Antonio, state Representative Philip Cortez has become directly involved in keeping tabs on the Dominguez State Jail after seeing a news report on conditions inside. It’s telling that journalists received this information sooner that an elected official. “The percentage of the population that have it right now in Dominguez is unacceptable,” Cortez told local outlet KENS 5 on July 11.
Cortez has since demanded that the TDCJ give him weekly briefings on conditions in the prison. Families of incarcerated people reported they could only communicate with their loved ones via handwritten letters; the facility previously suspended visits and phone calls as part of its lockdown effort.
Dominguez State Jail also, reportedly, lacks a functioning air conditioning system. Cortez has urged family members of those inside to contact his office directly to file complaints.
World events beyond prison walls are resulting in more people becoming aware—and active—on this issue. In May, 25-year old Daniel Garcia Rodriguez was arrested in Fort Worth while protesting against the police murder of George Floyd. Rodriguez spent 14 hours in custody in the Tarrant County Jail, where he says he was denied hand sanitizer and where cells were packed with up to 25 people, without face masks.
Since being released, Rodriguez learned that the jail has had 40 positive coronavirus cases. Three people died of unknown medical emergencies in one week in June, and another woman gave birth alone in a cell.
So Rodriguez joined a drive-along protest outside the local Sheriff Bill Waybourn’s office on July 11. “Seeing the abuse, seeing the mistreatment, seeing the injustice that’s going on in there, with the rise of deaths, with the rise of COVID—it’s just unbearable not to come out here, be in solidarity with the people who are in there,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.