Report Critiques COVID-19 Response in Local Jails

Study reveals "a messy patchwork" of approaches to pandemic

Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle (Photo by John Anderson)

"Everyone is getting sick around me. No one is getting treated for symptoms. They charge for cold busters and aspirins. I ask officers for a COVID-19 test and they brush me off."

This quote from a person held in the Williamson County Jail in Georgetown during the height of the facility's coronavirus outbreak illustrates some of the findings of a new study titled "Infected With Fear: The Coronavirus in Central Texas Jails." The report critiques the responses of jail administrators in Travis, Williamson, Bastrop, Caldwell, and Hays counties, finding that they struggled to keep their facilities clean and to provide masks, testing, and medical care during a pair of outbreaks between April 2020 and June 2021.

The report was released by the criminal justice reform organizations Texas Appleseed and the Texas Justice Initiative. TJI mailed and hand-delivered bilingual surveys to incarcerated individuals and circulated an online survey to jail staff, receiving 1,231 responses. The group also tracked the evolving policies of the five jails.

The results revealed what the authors describe as "a messy patchwork of inconsistent policies, ambiguity, and confusion as jails attempted to maintain operations amid a new and unknown pandemic." The biggest complaint from those incarcerated was that they were provided only one disposable mask, which was not regularly replaced. Inmates in William­son County reported that they waited 30 to 50 days for new masks. Travis and Hays counties, however, had policies allowing masks to be replaced daily or twice a week.

Most inmates reported that they were not given a COVID-19 test if they asked for one. In Travis, Hays, and Williamson counties, between two-thirds and three-fourths of inmates who felt sick said they were not provided medical care. Travis County waived medical fees for COVID-19 treatment but other counties charged individuals for basic medicines like Tylenol and cough suppressants. The report criticizes the quarantine practices of all five counties. "Some jails made no effort to quarantine infected people whatsoever," the authors write.

The findings come as no surprise to Austin defense attorneys such as Carl Guthrie, who described the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle during its January 2021 outbreak as "a ghost town – except for the damned ... There was no social distancing. And it's not like they had PPE, it's not like there was real medical care, as much as I'm sure the medical people at jails want to help. It's just what it is – we as a society have decided these people deserve less." During the height of the outbreak, the kitchen and laundry facilities at the correctional complex were shut down. For days, inmates were fed nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Fear of infection was rampant. Still, none of those in Travis County's jail who caught the virus died from it. Guthrie gives credit to local authorities who limited arrests for nonviolent offenses at the outset of the pandemic, thus reducing the total jail population.

Only three COVID fatalities have been reported in area jails – two in WilCo and one in Caldwell County – according to Eva Ruth Moravec, one of the study's authors. She said the biggest improvement jail administrators could make in future outbreaks would be mandating the use of masks. "I'm hoping that something as simple as that would just be more accessible to people going forward," she said. "Regardless of what the type of outbreak is, we know that things can be contained better with masks."

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