COVID-19 spreading like wildfire in Texas prisons, experts call for mass testing

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Emails from fearful family members of Texas prisoners keeping coming.

On Monday, a mother who wishes to remain anonymous said the last phone call she got from her son who is serving time in a state prison in Huntsville was on April 20.

“I’m sure I’m not the only parent,” she said. “I’m concerned and I would appreciate it if we at least got a phone call. Maybe twice a week, even if it’s five minutes, just to assure me that he is doing good and he’s not ill.”

He’s on lockdown because there are positive cases in his unit. Lockdown generally means no phone calls for inmates, but according to the Texas Tribune, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has been giving inmates at some units five-minute phone calls with family.

“So many people in custody are saying that they are surrounded by people who are ill, that they don’t feel like they will get the appropriate medical treatment that they need if they start feeling sick,” said Michele Deitch, a prison conditions expert at the University of Texas at Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Deitch believes there are even more than the 1,700-plus positive COVID-19 cases the TDCJ is reporting, and wants to see mass testing in prisons across the state.

“I’m confident that we are not capturing all of the cases in the Texas prison system at this point,” said Deitch. “Until we do much more extensive testing we do not have a sense of how widespread it really is.”

Last week, the TDCJ said it started testing hundreds of high-risk inmates showing no symptoms, but has not tested entire units where case numbers are the highest. Deitsch said in order to get ahead of it, the TDCJ needs to thin out the prison population to allow for more social distancing.

“They are making some sincere efforts and the problem is that this is really a very dangerous and highly contagious virus and it’s spreading like wildfire,” said Deitsch.

Click here for COVID-19 data the TDCJ is reporting.

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