TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — The Travis County Sheriff’s Office reported the largest number of new COVID-19 infections among the inmates housed at its jail.
In its weekly update about case counts, the sheriff’s office shared Monday that 46 new inmates tested positive for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which is the biggest increase to date.
The office reported 69 inmates are currently quarantining in the jail’s confirmed positive unit. This houses only inmates who tested positive for the virus. According to an agency spokesperson, the inmates are kept in single-occupancy cells, and medical professionals see them twice a day.
The sheriff’s office stated none of the inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 are experiencing serious symptoms.
This record increase in new cases comes after TCSO shared last week that COVID-19 showed up among the general population of inmates. At that time, the inmates who became infected lived in Building 12, which houses nearly 1,000 inmates and is the largest building in the Travis County Correctional Complex.
The sheriff’s office also shared Monday that 21 new employees tested positive for COVID-19. That’s one fewer than the record number of new cases reported last week when the office confirmed 22 employees became infected.
When the coronavirus pandemic began early last year, TCSO reported it implemented a three-tiered isolation approach as well as installed protective measures, including plexiglass barriers, employee screening stations and others.
One of those isolation approaches included holding all newly booked inmates in single-occupancy cells for the first 10 to 14 days before they went to the general population. If an inmate does not show symptoms during that period, the sheriff’s office stated its medical staff members feel it’s safe to move that person into the general population.
“Travis County has done an extraordinary job of keeping the virus at bay for all of this time,” said Michele Deitch, who studies and teaches about prison conditions and policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.
She praised the jail’s quarantine policy, isolating people coming into the facility before they enter the general population of inmates.
“They had the space to do that, which made it possible — which many other facilities do not have the architectural ability to do that,” she said.
The jail’s policies work in three tiers.
Quarantine: This applies to inmates who are experiencing symptoms or have no symptoms. They’re housed on a separate floor in single-occupancy cells until they are cleared by medical staff.
Quarantine – Confirmed Positive: This tier houses only those inmates who have tested positive for the virus. They are placed in single-occupancy cells and are seen twice a day by medical professionals.
Isolation: All newly booked and healthy inmates are held in single-occupancy cells for the first 10 to 14 days before entering general population. The jail said the process was implemented March 30 with approval from Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
All inmates and those who have tested positive are allowed to shower daily and allowed access to the day room in strict rotations.
Meanwhile, a group of defense attorneys called the Austin Defense Coalition have been critiquing Travis County’s approach since last April. One of their members and a local attorney, Skip Davis, said their group got together when the virus began to spread in Texas, filing writs of habeas corpus — asking judge to set their clients free or ordering the end of what they call certain improper jail conditions.
“It’s eye-popping,” Davis said.
Five of their members spoke with KXAN and detailed concerns about testing, cleanliness, intense isolation policies and what they call a lack of access to medicine for sick inmates.
“My client has been calling me all afternoon saying he is having trouble breathing — something that his cell mate has confirmed,” said attorney Deniz Kadirhan. “The only thing they will get is a couple of ibuprofen.”
Another member of the coalition, George Lobb, pointed out the connection between a spike in jail cases and a spike in the surrounding community.
“For the viewers whose position is, ‘They are in jail; they did something wrong; why should they get a vaccine when my 86-year-old grandmother isn’t getting one either?’ They are more likely to get the disease. When they get it, if they have complications, they are more likely to go to the hospital,” he said. “It’s a multiplying effect.”
Attorney Amber Vazquez agreed, “Refusing to test, refusing to trace and then refusing to give the vaccine to the most at-risk, is going to hurt us all.”
Deitch echoed those concerns, noting there was no “bright line” between these detention facilities and the surrounding population.
“There’s a lot of movement — both with staff who come and go every day, and with our jails, where there are people being released,” she said.
The ADC and Deitch agreed on one other point — they all feel jail staff and inmates should be prioritized during Texas’ vaccine distribution.
No published plans to vaccinate Texas inmates
A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the state’s prisons said they were not in charge of creating a plan to vaccinate staff or inmates. Rather, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the state’s vaccine allocation experts will determine when these people become eligible.
DSHS current plans outline eligibility for “healthcare workers in corrections and detention facilities.” State data shows shipments of one hundred to four hundred doses have been allocated to 50 of the state’s prison facilities for those healthcare staff.
According to TDCJ, around 7,900 doses have been allocated over the seven weeks of Texas’ vaccine rollout.
A spokesperson for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office said their employees have begun receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, through state, county and other providers. These employees include sworn and civilian staff in Central Booking, Quarantine and Isolation Units, Medical Services and Mental Health Services, as well as patrol deputies.
According to the spokesperson, these employees are not required to report their vaccine status to TCSO, so the office did not have data to provide to KXAN.
A survey by the Prison Policy Initiative lists Texas as one of ten states who does not mention incarcerated people anywhere in their vaccine allocation plans. The same survey noted seven states have listed incarcerated people as top-priority individuals. These include Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.
KXAN has not found any Texas DSHS documentation mentioning incarcerated people or non-healthcare related staff as included in Phase 1B of the vaccine rollout. We will update this article if more information on the state’s plans become available.
Do you have a loved one who is incarcerated or who works at a Texas detention facility? Do you have a story to tell? Email KXAN criminal justice reporter Avery Travis at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on social media.