Texas prisons intake process set to resume easing financial burden on counties

2 years 7 months 3 days ago Saturday, June 27 2020 Jun 27, 2020 June 27, 2020 10:42 AM June 27, 2020 in News - Coronavirus Pandemic

State prisons are preparing to start receiving inmates next week from county jails after intake was halted in April. The decision meant to keep COVID-19 from spreading among inmates financially burdened county budgets.

"It's costing the county basically around $60 for every day that we house an inmate for the State of Texas," Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra said.

There are 127 inmates in Hidalgo County ready to transfer to Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or TDCJ, facilities.

Expenses are adding up while they wait. Personal protection equipment for staff and inmates cost the county about $100,000. That doesn't include purchases of sanitizers, disinfectants, and specialized equipment or the money required to cover overtime and rescheduling of holidays, Guerra said.

"We've used our commissary funds to purchase the equipment for our inmates. We're hoping to get that reimbursed," Guerra said alluding to CARES Act funding.

The decision to stop the intake of inmates from county jails was implemented in April following an executive order by the governor, Jeremy Desel, TDCJ Director of Communications, said Friday.

Even transfers from prison to prison were halted.

"Even people that had to go to a specific unit for a parole-mandated program were unable to do that, because we weren't transferring people from unit to unit either except for medical purposes until last week," Desel said.

The decision to halt all transfers appears to be successful.

Desel said the number of COVID-19 cases is on the decline inside state facilities. As of Thursday, "7,653 offenders and 1,293 staff have tested positive for COVID-19 in both symptomatic and asymptomatic testing," according to updates available on the TDCJ website.

County jails were notified of the plans to resume intakes through an internal communication memo from TDCJ dated June 16, 2020 titled "Intake Screening Process for COVID." It outlined the process for inmate transfers.

"Any offenders who are brought in to our system would come initially from counties that do not have any signs of COVID-19 cases in their county jails," Desel said.

Testing will help facilitate transfers, too.

On Friday, Starr County inmates were loaded up into a van and taken for a test at the mobile testing site, according to Dr. Jose Vazquez, Starr County Health Authority. "Offenders who have tested negative for COVID-19 will likely have a higher likelihood of being transferred," Desel said.

Guerra said they have three inmates ready for transfers. They tested negative, and their forms including questionnaires were already filled out.

"Basically, how long we had had our inmates in the facilities; if they had any symptoms of COVID in the last 14 days; if they had been tested for COVID and the results; and, any other medical conditions we need to let them know," Guerra said of the questionnaires.

Although Hidalgo County's jail has no active cases, Guerra said in the last two weeks some staff from the detention and law enforcement side have gone home and later tested positive for the virus.

The intake process is anticipated to start the first week of June, as per Desel and Guerra. TDCJ will start with 250 inmates a week all fed through one intake unit at the Garza West Unit, according to Desel. 

The rise in positive cases across the county and the state could extend the wait in county jails.

"I imagine it's going to be starting off slow, probably the month of July, maybe in August," Guerra said.

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