Texas prisons will accept county jail inmates again, three months after the coronavirus halted intake

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Telford prison in New Boston, Texas. Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

Starting July 1, the Texas prison system will again accept inmates from county jails on a limited basis after halting intake three months ago due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice sent a letter to Texas sheriffs Monday, saying mass testing has given the agency more flexibility to move inmates into and around the state's more than 100 prison facilities. As of Monday, TDCJ has completed more than 100,000 coronavirus tests on state prisoners, according to prison data. More than 7,400 inmates have tested positive for the virus, and at least 54 prisoners and eight employees have died with COVID-19.

"This effort will require extensive coordination between our organizations moving forward, but I am confident the measures put in place will minimize the potential spread of COVID-19 while we safely receive offenders into the state's criminal justice system," TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier said in the letter obtained by The Texas Tribune on Tuesday.

The state prison system stopped intake of people in county jails who had been sentenced to prison in April, after at least 10 county jails reported the virus in their lockups and Texas prisons had nearly 200 cases. Normally, counties send commitment papers over to TDCJ after an inmate has been handed a prison sentence, and the state prison system has to take them in within 45 days, according to state statute. By halting intake from counties, the state prison population dropped from about 140,000 inmates in March to about 131,000 in May, according to state reports.

On Monday, 19 counties reported 546 inmates with active cases of coronavirus within their jails. TDCJ lists about 2,350 of their prisoner cases as active.

The decision to halt intake for months prompted outcry from some county sheriffs who moved to lower their jail populations due to the pandemic and then were forced to keep inmates in their custody. In May, the Bexar County Sheriff's Office asked the state for $468,000 to reimburse jail costs for holding TDCJ-ready inmates, according to KSAT.

The flow of inmates from county jails to prison lockups, however, will still be limited when it begins next month — bringing in about 250 new inmates a week down from about 250 a day. In a statement Tuesday, TDCJ said the agency will coordinate with each county to go through an inmate screening process, and new inmates will be housed separate from the general population for two weeks.

On Monday, the agency also announced it would begin moving inmates approved for release on parole to units where they can participate in programs that they must complete before they can actually be released. Thousands of parole-approved prisoners have waited months to be transferred to units where they can complete such programs.