This article was originally posted by Samantha Ketterer on April 17, 2020 for Houston Chronicle.
The surprise caused Sebesta to pen his complaints in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and request that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice apologize for how it “surreptitiously” brought infected inmates to the county. Bonnen, R-Angleton, said he was similarly surprised and delivered Sebasta’s correspondence to the governor himself.
“I don’t want any more COVID-positive inmates transferred to Brazoria County.”Dennis Bonnen
The state prison system’s actions incited immediate concerns for Sebesta and the speaker beyond reasons related to transparency. The biggest fear is that the relocations place residents who work in the prisons — and thus their families and the greater community — at higher risk of infection, they said.
“We need to know so we can let the public know,” Sebesta said. “We’re increasing the chances for the spread of the disease, not only for the prisoners that are normally housed here, but for the guards and their families.”
The transferred inmates comprise more than a third of the 347 inmates statewide who tested positive for the disease caused by the new coronavirus, based on the information obtained by the judge.
TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel confirmed that the state prison system removed a number of inmates from the Beto unit near Palestine and the Telford unit near Texarkana, and relocated them to the Scott Unit in Angleton and the Stringfellow unit in Rosharon. He would not confirm how many people were moved.
Those inmates needed access to better access to medical care, which includes the prison system’s hospital in Galveston, Desel said. He declined to comment on Sebesta’s statements about his agency’s transparency, but said county judges are not informed when regular prison transfers occur.
“We move thousands of offenders every month from unit to unit all over the state based on the needs of the system,” he said. “County judges aren’t notified of those.”
TDCJ has otherwise halted new inmates from entering the system, as well as non-medical transfers, Desel said.
Sebesta said his county, which has six prison units, has had a historically good relationship with TDCJ. But he he learned about the transfer from a journalist, rather than the state.
Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said he wasn’t given advance notice either.
“I can understand the strategy of moving those inmates that may need hospitalization closer to the TDCJ Facility in Galveston,” he said in a statement. “However, that strategy should have included notifying the local responders and the local hospital where inmates are taken in emergencies.”
Sebesta has now requested that the state provide the county additional personal protective equipment and reimburse any additional expenses that might result from the patient transfers.
While Desel said Brazoria County shouldn’t experience any added burden regarding cost or resources, Sebesta disputed that, saying the Angleton Area Emergency Medical Corps responds to emergency calls at the prisons.
Both the Scott and Stringfellow units were already on a precautionary lockdown prior to the transfers, Desel said. Not including the transfers, 10 inmates tested positive for COVID-19 at the Scott unit and 13 tested positive at the Stringfellow unit as of Thursday afternoon. Those individuals are in medical isolation at the units, which have all-male populations.
As of Friday, TDCJ updated its tracking system to reflect where the infected inmates are currently located — 81 at Stringfellow and 65 at Scott.
Another 591 inmates at Scott and 326 inmates at Stringfellow are not quite isolated but remain in “medical restriction,” meaning they have been exposed to the disease. Five employees at Stringfellow have tested positive, as well as three others at Hospital Galveston, TDCJ’s accredited prison hospital which is managed by the University of Texas Medical Branch.
The Beto and Telford units, the transferred inmates’ original locations, were the sites of the two largest outbreaks at TDCJ. As of Thursday afternoon, 118 inmates at Beto and 54 inmates at Telford had tested positive, according to state data. By Friday, 25 infected inmates remained in Beto and 21 remained in Telford.