Fourth Gatesville prison unit put on lockdown because of COVID-19

Four of the six Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities in Gatesville are on lockdown after at least one inmate or employee tested positive for COVID-19 at each unit.

The move comes a little over a week after the department first placed four Texas prisons on lockdown, including the Dr. Lane Murray Unit for women in Gatesville, on April 8. There are now 30 correctional facilities on lockdown across the state, including the four in Gatesville: the Christina Melton Crain women’s prison, Alfred D. Hughes men’s prison, the Linda Woodman State Jail for women and the Murray Unit.

Among the four Gatesville facilities on lockdown, at least 31 inmates and 32 employees had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Saturday. Another two tests are pending at Craine, and one test is pending at Hughes.

The only two Gatesville facilities not currently on lockdown are the Hilltop men’s prison and the Mountain View women’s prison, according to Department of Criminal Justice.

As of Saturday, 183 department employees and 376 inmates statewide had tested positive for COVID-19, including those in Gatesville. A total of 18 inmates have recovered statewide.

Lockdown lasts for 14 days after an inmate or employee tests positive for COVID-19, according to department. Additional measures include placing inmates who have tested positive and are sick and contagious in medical isolation and restricting the movements of inmates who may have been exposed to the coronavirus to see if they become sick.

Coryell County, which includes Gatesville and the inmates who reside in the units there, had seen 71 people test positive for COVID-19 as of noon Saturday. That number may not include the latest confirmed cases reported by the Department of Criminal Justice, a Department of State Health Services spokeswoman said.

The Department of Criminal Justice conducts its own COVID-19 case investigations for inmates, health department spokeswoman Lyndsey Rosales said. If a staff member tests positive for the disease, the criminal justice officials work with the local health department to help prevent community spread as needed.

“All case reports for inmates and staff go to a centralized TDCJ office, which sends test results to DSHS,” Rosales said. “DSHS then communicates with the region, which communicates with counties about cases. Test results are included in the number of cases we are reporting, and it may take a few days for us to catch up with TDCJ’s numbers.”

That is a problem for Coryell County Judge Roger Miller. The data he receives from the state do not tell him whether the people who tested positive for COVID-19 are prison inmates or other residents, and that makes it difficult for him to prepare and protect his community, Miller said.

The six prison units in Gatesville house between 7,000 and 8,000 inmates and employ about 2,500 people, not all of whom live in Coryell County, he said. That high density of people puts everyone in the prisons at greater risk for contracting COVID-19, he said.

“That not only impacts Coryell County but other counties, as well,” Miller said. “That’s a regional employer.”

Once the Department of Criminal Justice confirmed inmates and employees at the Gatesville units had tested positive for COVID-19, Miller said the prison units became his No. 1 concern because of the employees who go to work and then leave each day, allowing them to unwittingly spread the disease across Central Texas.

Miller worries that outbreaks in the prison units will overwhelm the state’s resources to treat inmates and employees because the state is focusing on larger areas, such as Dallas and Houston, he said.

Like the union that represents the most criminal justice employees, Miller believes a statewide lockdown of all prison facilities would be wise. With thousands of people in the Gatesville units, he said it would take more hospital beds and other resources than are available in Central Texas to treat every patient.

Miller said he has expressed these concerns to the governor, the Texas Department of State Health Services regional director and to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice executive director.

“How valid they view my concerns, I’m not sure,” he said.

Meanwhile, organizations that work with incarcerated people do not know how these lockdowns are affecting their clients. Gov. Greg Abbott suspended all visitation to prisons and state jails on March 13, but some nonprofits, including Truth Be Told, have been delivering educational materials via mail.

Truth Be Told Executive Director Katie Ford said the only way she hears how women in the prisons are doing is from the materials she receives back in the self-addressed, stamped envelopes the nonprofit provides for women inmates to submit their assignments.

“Most of the women in our classes are staying engaged this way, and we’re getting snippets of what their lives might be like right now in the comments they make,” Ford said. “They make references to chow taking longer because the number of women in the cafeteria is limited or recreation schedules changing to reduce the number of women in the yard at one time. But overall, they express a lot of gratitude that we care enough to stay in communication with them.”

Truth Be Told, established in 2000, works with incarcerated and recently incarcerated women to address the factors that led them into the criminal justice system, such as high rates of domestic violence, substance abuse and histories of childhood physical and sexual abuse. The nonprofit has several programs at five women’s correctional facilities in Central Texas, including the Gatesville units, to help women talk about and deal with past trauma. Truth Be Told works with about 12,500 women, according to its website.

Ford said the women she has communicated with have expressed hope that this pandemic will pass soon and that things will go back to normal.

“They worry about us out here in the free world and are praying for the healing of our nation,” she said. “That’s the thing I think most people don’t understand about incarcerated women: They are survivors at heart and have tremendous capacity to rise in the face of adversity. It just takes a supportive community to evoke it.”