Massive COVID-19 testing campaign launched in Texas prisons

COVID-19 testing at Lee State Prison in Georgia 

by Jason Renard Walker, NABPP Minister of Labor

Clements Unit prisoners in three buildings’ close custody wings were awakened in the early morning of May 1, 2020, by the loud sounds of ranking guards telling them to get dressed and step out of their cells.

Normally, such mass invasions by staff mean cell searches and shakedowns. To our surprise, no shakedowns would be conducted, though a wealth of “free-world” men and women wearing hazmat-like garments and bearing clipboards, hand sanitizer and smart phones awaited us for COVID-19 testing.

Were these members of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or members of some other agency deployed by Gov. Greg Abbott?

Whoever they were, seeing them gave prisoners a sigh of relief, as this could be the beginning of trial and error measures designed to lift the current prison medical lockdown, allow us some recreation time, hot meals and access to the phone.

Despite being in a cell with another prisoner for the past 40 days, we were shepherded to an empty room in the building, the multi-purpose room, by the dozens and yelled at for “not practicing social distancing.” Ironically, social distancing was never taught until COVID-19 testing. The testers watched in shock and awe as prisoners who hadn’t seen each other in days shook hands, hugged and talked. 

In fact, staff hadn’t taught us social distancing – to keep 6 feet of space between us. Thus, they looked like fools as they hastily showed us what little they knew about it. The testers even spoke among themselves noting the prisoners had on makeshift masks made out of used sheets, not N-95 masks. A mentally ill prisoner who hasn’t had access to a radio or newspaper was finally brought to reality that a pandemic had been launched.

First, we went to one table station, handed over our ID cards and used hand sanitizer. Second, we were pointed to another station with our testing kits and shown how to self-test: Cough in your sleeve three or four times; remove the swab and vial from the kit; swab your mouth and gums for 20 seconds; put the swab in the vial and turn it upside down and right-side up three times so that pre-encased liquid mixes with the swab. We placed everything back in the bag, then in a box, and headed back to our cells.

According to the Herald Press, 79 percent of the prisoners tested at the Beto Unit tested positive for coronavirus. The total number of those prisoners who tested positive was 60 as of May 12, 2020.

This massive statewide testing campaign of practically every inmate and TDCJ guard (totaling 150,000 individuals) in Texas is following and in response to Texas officials, such as Anderson County Mayor Steve Presley and others, criticizing the COVID-19 testing policies of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The policies became a great concern since most of the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Anderson County have been linked to local prisons.

As of May 12, 2020, over 1,000 prisoners in Texas have tested positive for COVID-19, while 20,000 others have been placed on medical restriction, statewide. The Beto Unit in Tennessee Colony, Texas, holding over 2,000 prisoners, has reported one of the highest numbers of positive cases in the Texas prison system.

According to the Herald Press, 79 percent of the prisoners tested at the Beto Unit tested positive for coronavirus. The total number of those prisoners who tested positive was 60 as of May 12, 2020.

Texas is in the process of increasing its testing supply as the state has ranked at, or near, the bottom among states for Coronavirus testing. The massive testing campaign is a reflection of this. All Texas prisons are expected to have completed COVID-19 testing in the next three weeks.

In April, Gov. Greg Abbot said he expected a massive amount of additional testing capability by May. Testing all Texas prisoners and guards is just the start.

After close custody prisoners in 4 Building were done testing and no negative incidents were reported by staff, they were surprised with the opportunity to purchase food items from the commissary and to have hot showers.

We all celebrated making it this far without healthy food by making our own hot meals and sharing them with the prisoners unable to buy their own, due to lack of funds, commissary restrictions etc.!

After taking my shower, I peered in a white and Hispanic prisoner’s cell to observe the types of food being made. Theirs: Ramen noodles mixed and topped with refried beans, squeeze cheese, pork skins and other goodies – your typical TDCJ “store day spread.” Despite the pandemic, we are learning to thrive through it!

Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win! All Power to the People!

Send our brother some love and light: Jason Renard Walker, 1532092, Clements Unit, 9601 Spur 591, Amarillo, TX 79107.