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Inmates report dangerous practices inside the Texas prison with the most coronavirus deaths

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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.”

TDCJ officials have stressed to the public and federal courts the measures they are taking systemwide to protect those in their custody from the illness.

On March 13, when Gov. Greg Abbott declared a statewide public health disaster due to the pandemic, he called for inmate visitation to be canceled at state prison facilities. In mid-April, after nearly 200 TDCJ inmates had been confirmed positive for the virus, the department stopped accepting new inmates from county jails, several of which had recorded COVID-19 cases. Later that month, TDCJ reported it had issued cloth masks to all inmates and staff, with more protective equipment worn by staff in areas confirmed or suspected to have infections.

Prison officials also have said they isolate all sick inmates, conduct extensive contact tracing, educate inmates on protecting themselves from the virus and regularly check them for symptoms.

“Since the novel coronavirus began to spread across the United States in March, TDCJ has acted swiftly and decisively, in accordance with federal guidelines and medical experts’ recommendations, to protect prison staff and inmates from infection,” Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins said in a May federal court filing in a lawsuit involving another prison.

Still, the number of inmates and employees known to have the virus continues to skyrocket, with infection reported in more than half of the state’s more than 100 lockups. After beginning to test all inmates — regardless of symptoms — at dozens of prisons in May, the number of inmates testing positive has jumped by nearly 4,400 in the last two weeks, from about 2,500 to 6,900 as of Saturday, according to agency reports. More than 1,000 employees also have tested positive.

Those numbers include people who have since recovered from the virus, and TDCJ has noted that the rapidly increasing number represents more information from mass testing, not a surge in infection. TDCJ spokesperson Jeremy Desel said Thursday that since mass testing began, the majority of new positive cases have been in asymptomatic inmates, and the number positive results coming from symptomatic inmates has been declining.

The virus is presumed to have killed at least 42 Texas prisoners and seven employees as of Saturday, TDCJ has reported. The agency does not confirm the cause of death based on initial autopsy reports. Thirty-one more inmate deaths are still being investigated.

Deaths add up

The men locked inside the 137-old Wynne Unit, less than three miles from the state’s execution chamber, are acutely aware theirs is the deadliest when it comes to COVID-19.

Wynne is one of 15 Texas prisons housing more than 200 prisoners who have tested positive for the virus, including those who have recovered. TDCJ has reported at least 10 COVID-related deaths from Wynne, including one prison officer. The county has reported an additional five inmate deaths (Desel said the county tally includes cases where the cause of death is still being investigated).

At least one man among the Wynne fatalities was tested only after he was found unresponsive in his cell and pronounced dead at the hospital, according to TDCJ. The agency said he had not shown any symptoms.

“The Wynne Unit still continues to play Russian Roulette with our lives here," John Paul Borrego, 47, serving a life sentence handed down in Harris County, wrote to the Tribune in May.

Recently, prisoner rights advocates applauded TDCJ as the agency began testing all inmates at some highly-infected units to better recognize and address the extent of outbreaks. More than 83,000 tests have been conducted on the state’s approximately 136,000 inmates as of Saturday, according to agency reports, though results aren’t back on all of them yet.

Desel said he mostly hears from inmates who are grateful for how the system has handled the pandemic. He said one man who was gravely ill with the virus said he believed he would have died if he was on the outside.

“I think you’re always going to have folks who are detractors no matter what you do but the agency has been diligent... it has been nimble in its response to COVID in keeping everyone, from our offenders and our staff, protected,” he said.

But inmates at Wynne said many of TDCJ’s stated policies often aren’t followed at their unit. And any future improvements, they added, would be too late for the men who have died.

“The damage may already have been done,” Raymond Leal, 48, who is serving a 36-year sentence from Harris County, said in a letter to the Tribune in early May. “Would those… men still be alive if they would had been housed on another unit or if the Wynne Unit had handled things differently?”

“It is a constant shuffle”

TDCJ reported the first positive case of the coronavirus at the Wynne Unit — a sick officer — on April 3. The night before, several inmates said more than 100 of them were moved out of their cells to other sections of the prison. They said they later learned that many inmates had been moved into quarantine because they had come into contact with the officer.

Days later, the entire prison was placed on a precautionary lockdown, TDCJ reported. During lockdowns, inmates are largely kept in their cells or dorm cubicles, handed small sack meals in their beds and cut off from phones and the prison store. The lockdowns, which are still in place in more than 40 Texas prisons, are efforts to stop the spread of the virus by limiting personal interactions.

Those who have potentially been exposed, like the men who had interacted with the officer, are housed as a group in what the prison calls medical restriction, Desel said. In restriction, TDCJ says inmates are monitored for symptoms twice a day for 14 days.

“People don’t go into medical restriction randomly,” he said. “People are placed into medical restriction as a direct result of a full contact investigation which is a direct result of a full positive or pending test.”

📷 A letter from a Wynne Unit inmate from May 2020 describing conditions inside the lockup during the coronavirus pandemic. Jacob Villanueva / The Texas Tribune

📷 A letter from a Wynne Unit inmate from May 2020 describing conditions inside the lockup during the coronavirus pandemic. Jacob Villanueva / The Texas Tribune

Letters from Wynne Unit inmates describing life in the lockup during the coronavirus pandemic.

Jacob Villanueva / The Texas Tribune

But the inmates said that move was only the beginning. Multiple men wrote that they and their cellmates have often been reassigned — forcing those who aren’t sick to bunk up with men who are actively coughing or feverish, yet untested.

“It is a constant shuffle of offenders,” Dustin Hawkins wrote in his May letter to the Tribune. “Offenders are moved on the cellblock sick and untested, then tested, confirmed positive and moved to another cellblock after exposing several others to the virus.”

Desel said inmates who have potentially been exposed to the virus are housed in cohorts with other potentially-exposed inmates, as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He said decisions about how and where to house inmates during the pandemic are made on a case-by-case basis. And an emergency command center launched in March determines the best way to organize placements.

“Knowing there was going to be, for example, a group of [COVID-19] positive offenders, then we would convert a gymnasium space to a dorm setting … and move healthy, asymptomatic offenders to that space while opening up a location where a cohorted group of positive offenders could be more safely housed,” he said.

While the CDC guidance does state that inmates exposed to the same sick person can be grouped as a cohort, it also notes new people should not be added to the group once they are in restriction. Wynne inmates said men are being moved into and out of their quarantine block regularly.

The CDC guidance also specifies that after a person confirmed or suspected to have the virus leaves a cell, it should be sealed for up to a day and then cleaned and sanitized. Inmates said cleaning between inmates hasn’t been happening, and overall sanitation is lacking.

Desel said staff use a mixture of bleach and water to sanitize cells, and inmates are given some sort of cloth or paper wipe to do their own cleaning. Jason Wimberley, a 46-year-old man sentenced to 35 years in Stephens County, wrote that the only cleaning his prison cell got was when staff occasionally sprayed disinfectant through what looked like a garden sprayer into their cells.

“I’ve woke up in the middle of the night with a chemical taste in my mouth coughing because they sprayed my cell while I was sleeping,” Wimberley wrote to the Tribune last month.

Leal, the inmate sentenced in Harris County, said he shared a cell with a man who had a fever and other COVID-19 symptoms for several days before the man was put in isolation. The staff later moved Leal to another cell — again with a sick cellmate who quickly demanded medical attention.

When Leal balked at going back into the cell without having it sanitized, he said prison staff threatened to write him up and refused to clean the cell or give him supplies to do it himself.

“Every day they are moving people around on the block and moving people on and off a quarantine wing, which defeats the whole purpose of a quarantine,” Leal wrote. “I understand that it’s not TDCJ’s fault that this pandemic occurred. They are however at fault for their purposeful neglect!”

Sick and uncounted

Of the men who either wrote to the Tribune or whose loved ones shared their stories, three said they had coronavirus symptoms but weren’t tested, while others said their cellmates had symptoms and went untested.

Wimberley said sometimes inmates don’t report symptoms because they consider medical isolation to be solitary confinement — a harsh punitive measure in prisons.

“All they will do is put you on a wing in back we refer to as the dungeon. No one wants to go back there. They put you there and forget about you,” he wrote.

But others said they did report their symptoms, like chills and loss of taste, and medical staff recorded their high temperatures when they came by for their twice-daily symptom checks for those in medical restriction. Still, they weren’t tested.

Patricia Gamboa, whose boyfriend is at the Wynne Unit but asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, shared his letters to her with the Tribune. He wrote that a nurse told him that unless he had consecutive days of high fever, he couldn’t get tested.

“I asked the nurse today when they came and did our temp.[sic] checks, why aren't they testing us cause about 150 of us have been sick and have asked to be tested,” he wrote to her in mid-April. “She said she knows we all been sick and they aren't supposed to say anything unless we have constant temps."

Dustin Hawkins said he told the prison administration about his symptoms in the beginning of April, noting chills, body aches and an altered sense of smell and taste.

He said he was taken to the infirmary after having chest pains. Though his temperature was twice measured above 102 degrees, he said he was treated for chest pains only and then sent back to his cell.

“The fever and severity of the chills lasted maybe a day and a half, 2 days at the most but the taste of everything stayed gone for about 6 or 7 days,” he said in a letter. “... It is a feeling I never felt before and it felt like I was literally about to pass away.”

A month and a half after he recovered, he said he was finally tested along with all other inmates at the unit through a self-administered, oral test that checks for active infection. He was negative.