Within the walls of the Texas prison with the most reported coronavirus deaths, the men locked inside are telling a drastically different story than the state about how inmates are being handled during the pandemic.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has emphasized that healthy inmates are kept separated from sick inmates and those exposed to the sick to limit the spread of the illness that has exploded within state lockups — with nearly 6,900 inmates known to have had the virus as of Saturday.
The agency, which began mass testing in mid-May at dozens of its more than 100 lockups across the state, has also said prisoners in facilities that have COVID-19 infections are only taken out of cells to shower in small groups, while inmates with symptoms are tested and isolated.
Inmates at Huntsville’s Wynne Unit, however, say the prison didn’t test feverish inmates in April, after the virus had taken hold in the cellblocks, and continues to routinely place sick or exposed inmates in cells or other close quarters with the healthy. They say men who otherwise have been separated from each other are still often taken to the showers in large groups.
“To say that the Wynne Unit is taking proper measures and procedures would be a joke," Dustin Hawkins, a 32-year-old serving a 10-year sentence out of Harris County, wrote in a letter to The Texas Tribune last month. He said he was denied testing in April while sick with a high fever and chills and had lost his sense of taste — common symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.
“Since the pandemic has started there has been multitudes of sick offenders going untested,” Hawkins said.
Over the last two months, 20 Wynne prisoners — on lockdown largely without phone access — have written letters to their loved ones and the Tribune, detailing the conditions in which the coronavirus has rapidly spread. They all share similar stories, describing their environment as unsanitary, disorganized and exceptionally dangerous.
“To me (and I’m just an inmate) but you don’t spread people around [the] unit not knowing if they are positive or negative… all this random movement is not safe,” Rod, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of retaliation, wrote in a letter to the Tribune in late May. “In here it seems they are trying to get us sick.”