Texas prisons and youth lockups suspended visitation Friday after Gov. Greg Abbott declared a statewide public health disaster over the new coronavirus.
At a press conference announcing his disaster declaration, Abbott directed state agencies to restrict visitation at prisons, jails and juvenile justice facilities, adding that his staff is in constant contact with departments to ensure “best practice protocols.” At least 50 people in Texas have tested positive for COVID-19, a new respiratory disease that has shut down countries and killed thousands.
Shortly after the declaration, Jeremy Desel, spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees the state’s more than 100 prison facilities, said there would be no visitation or volunteers allowed at any facilities until otherwise instructed.
“While we understand the value and significance of the visitation process at our facilities, we also understand the importance of providing and maintaining a safe and healthy environment for all involved,” an agency statement read.
The Texas Juvenile Justice Department, which oversees five youth lockups, said in a statement that it was also temporarily stopping in-person visitation. The agency was working to expand access to video visitation by increasing tablets available for Skype and adding minutes and more staff to allow extra phone calls, the statement said. TJJD had already halted most volunteer access.
County jails will still be handled locally, but the Texas Commission on Jail Standards plans to issue guidance Friday afternoon informing that jails can restrict visitation up to full cancellation, according to the commission’s executive director, Brandon Wood. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office announced a pause on in-person visitation at the county jail Friday, adding that the jail’s phone service would offer two free phone calls a week per inmate for the next 30 days. Dallas County jail halted in-person visits Thursday, according to NBC 5.
“We knew that visitation would be one of those areas of concern,” Wood said after the declaration. “One, you are bringing people into the facility for visits. which potentially exposes staff and inmates. Also, in most county jails, you have public waiting areas, so you would basically be creating a public congregate area.”
Prisons and jails are incubators for disease, with groups of people housed closely together, often in unsanitary conditions. Things like hand sanitizer, which contains alcohol, are often contraband.
Although a vast majority of those with COVID-19 recover, the unknowns of the new disease and its high rate of contagion have halted countless events, including Austin’s South by Southwest Festival and college basketball’s March Madness tournament, and closed schools and universities. Other states, like Florida and California, also canceled prison visitation this week, and more have stopped visits at prisons in affected areas.
Disclosure: SXSW has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.