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Texas prisons cancel visitation after coronavirus disaster declaration

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Texas prisons have canceled visitation due to the new coronavirus. Angela Piazza for The Texas Tribune

Texas prisons suspended visitation Friday after Gov. Greg Abbott declared a statewide public health disaster over the new coronavirus.

At a press conference announcing his disaster declaration, Abbott directed state agencies to restrict visitation at prisons, jails and juvenile justice facilities, adding that his staff is in constant contact with departments to ensure “best practice protocols.” At least 50 people in Texas have tested positive for COVID-19, the diseased caused by the coronavirus, a new respiratory disease that has shut down countries and killed thousands.

Shortly after the declaration, Jeremy Desel, spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees the state’s more than 100 prison facilities, said there would be no visitation or volunteers allowed at any facilities until otherwise instructed.

“While we understand the value and significance of the visitation process at our facilities, we also understand the importance of providing and maintaining a safe and healthy environment for all involved,” an agency statement read.

A spokesperson for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, which oversees five youth lockups, said the agency would release a statement soon on a “temporary change in visitation.”

County jails will still be handled locally, but the Texas Commission on Jail Standards plans to issue guidance Friday afternoon informing that jails can now restrict visitation up to full cancellation, according to the commission’s executive director, Brandon Wood. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office announced a pause on in-person visitation at the county jail Friday, adding the jail’s phone service would offer two free phone calls a week per inmate for the next 30 days. Dallas County jail halted in-person visits Thursday, according to NBC 5.

“We knew that visitation would be one of those areas of concern,” Wood said after the declaration. “One, you are bringing people into the facility for visits which potentially exposes staff and inmates. Also, in most county jails, you have public waiting areas so you would basically be creating a public congregate area.”

Prisons and jails are incubators for disease, with groups of people housed closely together, often in unsanitary conditions. Things like hand sanitizer, which contain alcohol, are often contraband.

Though a vast majority of those with COVID-19 recover, the unknowns of the new disease and its high rate of contagion have halted countless events, including Austin’s South by Southwest Festival and college basketball’s March Madness tournament, and closed schools and universities. Other states, like Florida and California also canceled prison visitation this week, and more have stopped visits at prisons in affected areas.