Sunday, April 05, 2020

Blakinger: Myriad pandemic updates, conflicting accounts on intra-prison transports, and one happy story to cheer you up

Our pal Keri Blakinger offered up another excellent and much-appreciated email update while Grits' blog content ramps back up. I couldn't be more grateful, thanks Keri!

Hey Grits,

Guess what I had for breakfast? Actual grits. For the first time in my life. I always skipped grits days in the prison mess hall but now I bought a bunch for my pandemic pantry. They are surprisingly good!

I was pleased to see your update and welcome your imminent return to the blogosphere! Here is one more get well and come back soon email and update.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the world is falling apart. So I’ve included eight depressing virus-related items, one longer discussion of an uncovered issue, and one short happy thing!! You have to make it to the end for the happy thing, no cheating!

Depressing Items
  1. As coronavirus began making its way across the country a few weeks ago, people suddenly realized: Prisons literally banned a lot of basic disease prevention measures. With a lot of pressure some of this has changed, but generally, as of a few weeks ago prisons across the country banned alcohol-based hand sanitizer, made social distancing impossible, and did not allow face masks. (Relatedly, this is a good Stateman story from a few weeks ago about supplies/prisons.) 
  2. There are a lot of aging and medically needy prisoners. This is a thing you have, of course, written about. And it came up a lot in the Pack litigation. But now it could be extremely problematic for the prisons and jails that are about to be overwhelmed with an illness that particularly puts medically compromised and aging populations at risk.
  3. Given all that, prisoners are suing TDCJ. The attorneys on the case are - of course! - Scott Medlock and Jeff Edwards. Their names should be familiar to Grits readers because of the air conditioning and hepatitis C lawsuits. FWIW, there are a lot of corona-related lawsuits out there across the country, but most of the ones I’ve seen seem to be about release. This one is about conditions; i.e., they’re asking for supplies like hand sanitizer and measures like social distancing, not arguing that they should get out.
  4. Speaking of release, everyone from experts to advocates to law enforcement officials to editorial boards has been advocating for jail and prison releases as a way to minimize the spread behind bars. The exact mechanics vary but the Galveston jail population is down 20 percent, Travis County is down some 600 people, and Dallas County - where 20 inmates have tested positive - is down a few hundred.
  5. In addition to f***ing up the jails, prisons, courts and every aspect of life in general, the coronavirus is f***ing up death. Specifically, the pandemic has forced Texas to postpone three execution dates and seems likely to force the state to call off more. It’s also slowing down litigation, investigations and clemency efforts, as well as delaying trials, hearings and argument. Maurice Chammah and I quote your beloved podcast co-host Amanda Marzullo in our coverage of it.
  6. The state is actively fighting to keep people in jail. First, Ken Paxton - himself a felony arrestee out on personal bond - filed to intervene and prevent the possible release on personal bond of 4,000 Harris County inmates who he said would be able to “roam freely and commit more crimes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.” Then, the governor stepped in and did an executive order banning use of personal bond for anyone with any current or prior violent charge. The misdemeanor judges here in Harris County DNGAF. The felony courts are a little more complicated, as Gabrielle Banks and frenemy Sinjin report.
  7. Speaking of death, a lot of people are buying guns. Federal background checks for gun sales are way up over last month, Ted Oberg reported. This is exactly not at all surprising - though the fact that in Texas gun stores have stayed open and abortion clinics were closed seems to have raised some eyebrows.
  8. We all know short-term fluctuations in crime aren’t necessarily indicative of anything, but FWIW crime is down. I guess it’s hard to burglarize when everybody is at home. But at the same time, police are worried about seeing an increase in child abuse and domestic violence in the coming weeks. (In Dallas, the CBS affiliate already reported that happening more than two weeks ago, and Houston Public Media wrote about it this week.) I’m sure that’s only one of many awful, terrible things to come. Sorry this is the world you’re coming back to Grits, things got fucked up while you were gone!
The Longer Discussion:

The Texas prison system was slow to give employees access to protective gear and to halt inmate transfers, both practices that officers and advocates worried would create health risks during a pandemic that has already made its way into the state prison system. (As of Sunday evening, 18 inmates and 25 TDCJ staff had tested positive and some 3,700 prisoners were on medical restriction.)

Typically, hundreds of prisoners across the state are moved around every day, and there are more than 200 transport officers whose jobs are dedicated to making that happen. Sometimes the moves are for medical reasons, but other times it’s for court appearances, in preparation for release, to go to a unit that offers a specific type of program. The moves - often in the wee hours of the night - are stressful for everyone involved, and typically involve being chained to another person and loaded onto the white prison buses zipping up and down I-45.

But in the era of social distancing, that poses a clear safety risk - both because of the forced proximity and because of the possibility of spreading disease across the system through asymptomatic carriers. TDCJ - like every other prison system in the country - has already cut off visitation and programming, as well as attorney visits and in-person parole board interviews. But the continued need for prisoner transports has been a source of some tension. 

Even after officials in late March said the agency had stopped all but medical transports, officers repeatedly said that wasn’t true. At one point, it broke out into a little spat on Facebook between the Texas Correctional Institute Facebook page, a group run by TDCJ officers involved in a nonprofit by the same name.

“Texas prisons are breeding grounds for spreading COVID-19 with non medical chain buses running daily and staff lacking proper PPE such as N95 mask,” Texas Correctional Institute (TCI) posted on March 26, linking to an article titled: “Could Prison System Contribute To Increased Spread of COVID-19?”

“You are wrong,” spokesman Jeremy Desel wrote in response. “There are only medically necessary transfers occurring along with intake from unaffected counties. There are also significant supplies of N-95.”

The TCI main page and numerous individual posters disputed that, as did several officers I interviewed. 

Later, when I called Desel about it for a story, he clarified: Almost all transports had ceased, but sometimes people have to be moved from one unit to another to make room for other medical-related transports. The officers I’ve talked to still say that’s understating what’s going on, and point out that the agency is still accepting new intakes from counties and out-of-state. For example, officials in Louisiana confirmed sending two people to Texas last weekend - and both are now in custody of TDCJ. 

So it appears that even as the governor was drafting an last weekend’s executive order for any travelers from Louisiana self-quarantine, Texas was taking in new inmates freshly transported from a part of the country with one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the country. It’s unclear if they’re parole violators or if they were picked up by a local law enforcement entity before ending up in TDCJ.

In recent days, officers have confirmed that internal transfers are down significantly, but the allegation that too many happened for too long is not unique to Texas: Across the country, other prison systems - particularly the BOP - were seemingly reluctant to slow down internal moves, facing some criticism for it.

Another source of criticism for prison officials in Texas and elsewhere has been the reluctance to allow the use of masks - both by prisoners and staff.  In the federal system, some units have issued them to prisoners and in New York they’ve (as of last week) been allowed for corrections staff and some prisoners. In Nebraska, last week the agency mandated masks for employees (and the prison director posed in one to make the point). Here, officers and union leaders voiced concerns over the past week or so about the lack of access to masks, which many report they have were not permitted to wear at work. 

“We’re already 4,800 officers short, we can’t afford a mass exodus because they’re not provided PPE,” AFSCME Texas Corrections president Jeff Ormsby told me. “The CDC is recommending a mask anywhere you go now, but we should be letting the staff wear them in prison.”

Late Sunday, that changed. Now, all medically restricted prisoners and all agency staff will be issued cloth masks. And, prisoners at the garment factories are making more. 

On the one hand, this raises questions as to whether the agency could have acted sooner - but on the other hand, it’s hard to fathom what a really successful intervention might look like in a prison system. In the absolute best case scenario, meaningful social distancing is just not possible in most housing areas, and so many of the other mitigation efforts pose significant logistical challenges. So what’s next? The union is pushing for a systemwide lockdown. So far, I haven't heard any official support for that idea but with the pace of this news cycle - who knows.

The Good Thing

PAM COLLOFF HAS A HAPPY STORY. Everybody hearts Pam, and I especially heart her right now for providing a rare, rare moment of hope when everything seems to be on fire. I could go on but you’ve read enough words by now so here it is: Joe Bryan got out. ENJOY. Congrats to Pam, and welcome home to Joe.


Deb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Deb said...

The increase in gun sales is being "acutely propelled by Asian Americans" - and you can hardly fault them considering the raging numbers of attacks against them.

P. Ghosh said...

As a parolee under supervision of TDCJ-PD, my investigation shows that with the trying times that we now are in, TDCJ and the Harris County District Courts who are professionals at lying to the public, and subterfuge at its best. These State officials as well as politicians have all been knocked down to their knees, TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel, has to protect TDCJ at all cost.the overall majority of prison transports to Galveston and other medical facilities 7 out of 10 do not show that any treatment takes place, the inmate is simply transported from one holding cell and back to wherever he came from, this process sometimes takes days depending on geographical locations. But this is nothing new, just like the 86,000 parole-eligible prisoners files, where the hard copy for the support information were shredded due to the alleged policy,which was never disclosed. TDCJ Parole Division and the board of parole and pardons has never had to have any accountability for that particular instance as well as many others,murders,assults, contraband trafficking by TDCJ Corrections staff, falsifying government records in major disciplinary hearing's.Even when their own staff had been killed,such as the female officer at the French Robinson unit.

On Valentine's day I was released from the intermediate sanction facility downtown Houston located at 707 Top Street location,right next to the Harris County sheriff's department. after being railroaded through not one but two parole revocation hearings where all my rights were violated due process was violated penal code violations took place,TDCJ title 37 parole administrative law was violated, I was sent to the ISF unit where I spent 44 days in the Harris County jail I had to file grievances to use the law library to file my motion to reopen a revocation hearing, but before this could take place I had to actually get the law library supervisor to see that the Harris County sheriff's Office jail was violating civil rights on access to the courts they do this simply by telling the uninformed inmates that an inmate must have a written court order from the district court to use the law library. This behavior can be seens as criminally misleading information. So one must ask themselves,the comfort zone in these jails and prisons has become all too common for officials under color of state law, justs recently Judge Lina Hidalgo signed an order to release inmates that haven't even been convicted of anything the order has now been blocked, the ISF unit which is a cesspool for TDCJ administrative directive 10.64 on extreme temperatures, civil rights violations, health and safety code violations, food service violations, and it all falls under their own policies and the laws of the state of Texas. The ISF experience stemmed from refusing to sign a document to become a patient for which I have 4 certificates for such programs which are worthless. And no I have no positive finding of drugs in any UA from date of 4/3/18 when released.

Dave said...

My Dad, who grew up w/Grits, would say, they go best w/ Corned beef hash (the extra greasy kind, in a can)