LUBBOCK, Texas (KXAN) — Peggy Lopez can’t just pick up the phone and call her brother. The two communicate exclusively through letters. Leonard Lopez, 40, writes her two times a week from inside the walls of a Texas prison.
He’s more than six years into a 99 year prison sentence for attempting to kill his ex-girlfriend in Lamesa, Texas south of Lubbock. He’s serving his time at the Telford Unit near Texarkana.
The last letter she received from him was in March, when some of his fellow inmates started testing positive for COVID-19.
“He said things are really bad, everybody’s got the sickness,” said Peggy. “He was like, ‘I hope I don’t get it, I’m 40 and I’m not in the best health.’ So I started to begin to worry.”
Peggy grew more worried when the letters stopped coming. Peggy told KXAN she called the Telford Unit on April 6, 7 and 8 and spoke to the assistant warden and warden who both said her brother was doing fine.
Fifteen days later, and still no word from her brother, Peggy said she decided to call the chaplain at the unit who broke the news her brother was in the hospital with COVID-19, and suggested she call the TDCJ COVID-19 hotline.
When no one answered, Peggy said she called the prison again and learned Lopez was indeed in an intensive care unit on a ventilator.
“They said, ‘Yes, he is in [the hospital], he is positive,'” said Peggy. “And I said, ‘Really? You guys did not call me? Didn’t tell me anything?’ He was intubated without telling a family member!”
According to Peggy, her brother had been in the hospital since April 10, but said she did not find out until April 23.
KXAN asked TDCJ Director of Communications Jeremy Desel about the lack of communication.
“I can’t speak specifically to any individual case because of medical record restrictions, but I can tell you that in general we have a number of ways that offenders can either reach out to their own family members or someone from within TDCJ can reach out to those family members,” said Desel.
Desel said the TDCJ chaplains have made 25,000 phone calls to family members of those incarcerated during the COVID-19 crisis, but Peggy said she was not one of them — even though she says she is authorized to receive medical information about her brother and is the main family contact.
Peggy grew very afraid because she said Lopez has thyroid issues and high blood pressure, and while waiting to hear from him she learned other inmates and a staff member at the Telford Unit had died due to COVID-19.
As of May 2, the TDCJ reports 28 offenders have tested positive for the virus at the Telford Unit, and a total of 1,229 Texas prisoners out of 134,370 have had confirmed cases of COVID-10 since the pandemic began in March. The number of positive cases has more than doubled in the last two weeks.
KXAN’s sister station KETK has been investigating the rapid rise in cases at the Beto Unit, a men’s maximum security prison in Tennessee Colony. It has the highest number of positive COVID-19 cases by far at 130. KETK noticed the number of confirmed cases at the facility decreased from one day to another on the TDCJ website, and discovered when sick inmates were being moved to a hospital, the agency was no longer including them in the total count for the unit.
As of Saturday, May 2, TDCJ reported a total of 20 offenders have died due to COVID-19, and autopsy results are still pending on an additional nine cases.
Correctional officers, staff and contracted employees in the Texas prison system have also become ill. A total of 439 have tested positive for COVID-19, and the results of 301 tests are still pending. According to the TDCJ, a total of five employees and contract staff have lost their lives to the virus.
“I don’t think that anybody believed we were going to 100% be able to keep COVID-19 out of the prison system,” said Desel. “But we have certainly been doing the best that we can.”
Safety precautions in prisons
Since March, the TDCJ has instituted daily temperature checks for all staff and inmates entering its prison facilities.
The agency has also touted its mask production facility where offenders have been making personal protection equipment for the entire prison system. Up until two weeks ago, TDCJ says only staff and medical personnel were wearing masks, plus prisoners in medical isolation who are showing symptoms of the virus. Now, TDCJ says masks are being worn by everyone.
How does social distancing happen?
Letters from inmates sent to KXAN and emails from family members said as of mid-April prisoners were still showering and eating in groups, but Desel says that’s not happening in units with positive cases, which are all on lockdown.
Currently, there are 39 units on lockdown which impacts a total of 42,349 inmates.
“A lockdown is a lockdown,” said Desel. “They are not eating together there is no showering together.”
Peggy knows many people on the outside may not sympathize with or care about prisoners like her brother getting the virus.
“It could be anybody, you know, life is unfair at times,” said Peggy. “But he is still my brother, he still has kids, and he is still human.”
He’s also a fighter.
Peggy says she found out last Wednesday her brother is out of the ICU and on the road to recovery.
“If he can beat it, anybody can. I say have faith,” said Peggy.