AUSTIN (KXAN) — As widespread COVID-19 testing continues in prisons across Texas, results are coming in and the number of positive cases have spiked dramatically.

On Tuesday, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported about 2,500 prisoners had tested positive since March. On Wednesday, the number reported jumped to 3,900. In a 24-hour period, the number of staff members who have tested positive also increased from about 800 to nearly 850.

The agency reports the Middleton Unit in Abilene has one of the highest numbers of prisoners who have tested positive at 236, and at this moment there are 239 inmates sick and contagious who are in medical isolation.

Meanwhile, over the Memorial Day weekend, frustrated and concerned families of Texas prisoners gathered outside Gov. Greg Abbott’s mansion with megaphones and signs calling on him to reduce the prison population during the COVID-19 pandemic — by releasing prisoners who have been approved for parole.

Two weeks ago, the state launched mass testing of staff and inmates who were not showing signs and symptoms of the coronavirus to get a better handle on the outbreak in Texas prisons that has killed at least 35 offenders and seven employees.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a non-profit that has always advocated for lowering the prison population, has called on the governor and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to expedite the release of Texas prisoners it says have already been approved for parole, but have not yet completed the requirements for release.

TCJC senior policy analyst Doug Smith, who has been incarcerated himself, said some of the programs required for re-entry are on hold, and therefore, some inmates are unable to be released. Smith said some programs designed for group settings are being administered solo.

“Our understanding is that some of the programs are being done inside people’s cells through modules,” Smith said, “Meaning they’re just doing paper and pencil types of learning exercises.”

The organization would like the board to re-think the release process. For example, placing parole-approved inmates in a recovery home or with peer support outside the prison walls — separate from where COVID-19 cases are still spreading.

“Those programs must be completed in the system of incarceration, and then the release will happen as scheduled,” said Rep. James White, R-Woodville, chairman of the House Corrections Committee.

White believes some of the parole programming has been delayed during the pandemic, but is sticking to his guns on allowing the process to play out according to state law.

“We must start with the idea that parole is not a means to shorten sentences,” White said. “It’s not a means to undermine the decisions of thoughtful juries in counties of convictions.”

Parole reviews still happening

According to White, parole releases have continued in Texas prisons. He said the prison population has dropped from 140,000 to about 133,000 since the pandemic started for two reasons: parole releases and the current freeze on state prisons taking inmates from county jails.

When KXAN asked the Board of Pardons and Paroles how many Texas prisoners have been released since March, it referred us to the TDCJ for that number.

The board declined KXAN’s request for an interview, but public information officer Raymond Estrada said in an email there were about 11,000 offenders, as of April, who had been approved for parole, which was contingent upon completing a rehabilitation program.

According to White, about 540 of them have completed programming, but have not been released because they don’t have a home plan. He said at least two-thirds were convicted of a sexual offense, which makes it more challenging.

“We don’t want to release anyone into homelessness,” said White. “Obviously, that doesn’t help anybody and especially during this challenging period of COVID-19.”

Estrada said COVID-19 has not stopped the parole review process, which is mostly happening through virtual meetings, and there have been no changes to how the board renders parole decisions.

If a parole-approved offender is required to complete a program as part of their set conditions, the release date would depend on the program length. Estrada said the timeline varies from three to 18 months, but did not indicate if or how those programs have been affected by dozens of unit lockdowns during the pandemic.

Each year the board considers approximately 100,000 cases for parole or discretionary mandatory supervision, according to Estrada, and averages about 7,700 each month.

On March 27, the board said in a press release:

“There have been no changes to the manner in which the Board of Pardons and Paroles (Board) renders parole decisions. When rendering parole decisions the Board considers the totality of information available, including but not limited to: Current Offense(s), Criminal History, Age, Past Periods of Supervision, Drug/Alcohol Use/Abuse, Support Information, Victim Information, Institutional Adjustment and Program Participation. The statute sets initial parole eligibility, not the Board. Additionally, if parole is denied the set-off before the next review is also in accordance with statute. The Board of Pardons and Paroles, established by the Texas Constitution, decides which eligible offenders to release on parole, the conditions for parole and whether to revoke parole if conditions are not met, as well as recommendation of resolution of clemency matters to the Governor. For more information, please visit:”