Texas Prison System Halts Intake of County Jail Inmates To Stop Coronavirus Spread

A letter from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice recognized the move could put a strain on jails

File photo of a Texas prison.
Texas Department of Criminal Justice

The Texas prison system is temporarily halting the intake of new inmates from county jails starting this week, according to an agency letter obtained by NBC 5.

The letter, sent to county sheriffs on April 11, states the purpose is to allow the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to combat the spread of COVID-19 without further exposing both county and state inmates.

Bryan Collier, executive director of the TDCJ, described the action as “necessary and temporary.” A spokesperson for the department told NBC 5 as of Wednesday, there is no definite timeline on when they expect to accept inmate transfers again.

In the letter, Collier said agency-wide policies and protocols have been implemented to both prepare and respond to the outbreak. This includes communicating with the CDC, Texas Division of Emergency Management, Department of State Health Services, and university healthcare providers.

“Despite these robust efforts, the virus has entered the TDCJ system. To date, there are 69 employees, medical providers, or contractors who have tested positive. Another 130 inmates have been diagnosed,” Collier wrote. “These numbers go up each day, and we must do more to deny this virus the opportunity to spread.”

Collier went on to say he recognized the move could put a strain on jails and they would begin to take inmates once it was deemed safe to do so.

Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn briefed the Tarrant County Commissioner’s Court about the issue this week. According to Sheriff Waybourn, this will likely cause a backlog at their jail at a time they were trying to lower the inmate population, but he said they are prepared.

“We expect it to possibly go up as much as 400. We’ve got the capacity for it and we will try to accommodate them because we know what they’re doing down there. They’ve got all these COVID cases,” Sheriff Waybourn said, referring to the TDCJ. “We got to be team members right now and do what we can when we can.”

This week, the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office confirmed two of their inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. Several other inmates have been tested due to flu-like symptoms and all of those tests have returned negative, according to public information officer LT. Jennifer Gabbert.

“These positive test results triggered an immediate coordinated response from the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office and our JPS medical team,” a press release from the agency reads. “The response included mandatory multiple daily temperature checks of food vendor employees, our employees and inmates, and research into who the infected inmates may have come into contact with.”

According to Sheriff Waybourn, one of the infected inmates has been in the jail since December. The other inmate has been there for at least a week. Both are currently in isolation, but they are not showing symptoms right now.

It is unclear how either contracted the virus, Waybourn said.

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