Texas prisons to begin widespread coronavirus testing for inmates with self-administered tests

Telford prison in New Boston, Texas. Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced Tuesday it will begin widespread testing of state prisoners for the new coronavirus.

In a statement, the agency said it is receiving tens of thousands of new tests that inmates will administer themselves, crediting Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Department of Emergency Management. The new testing will start immediately, and inmates at all 104 prison units are being shown an agency video on how to administer the tests, prison spokesperson Jeremy Desel said.

The announcement came one day after the governor directed mass testing of all residents and staff at Texas nursing homes. Abbott said in a tweet Monday that the state was "working to rapidly expand our testing capacity—especially among vulnerable populations."

The coronavirus is fully entrenched in the Texas prison system, with more than 2,300 inmates and employees infected at dozens of units as of Monday, according to TDCJ data. Thirty prisoners and seven TDCJ employees have presumably died from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

But by Monday, TDCJ had only reported testing about 2,300 inmates — less than 2% of its inmate population. Of those tested, nearly 74% had the virus. That’s a staggeringly high rate compared to the state overall, where less than 8% of those tested had the virus.

Desel said he did not know how the tests would be divvied up among the prisons — the system contains nearly 140,000 inmates. The tests, manufactured by Curative, Inc., were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use in April, TDCJ's statement said. Curative's tests have also been used by the U.S. Air Force and in Los Angeles, according to the statement.

With the new testing, Desel said the agency is going to change how it reports its numbers on coronavirus infections in its prisons. He said the number of negative tests will likely be removed from reported data. That would publicly obscure what percentage of tested inmates and employees have the virus.

"We do anticipate that there’s going to be a significant increase in the number of positive tests," he said. "Any type of asymptomatic or mass testing has had at least some level of increase."

Until late April, TDCJ had only been testing symptomatic inmates. After larger-scale outbreaks at a handful of prisons, a few prisons began conducting testing of asymptomatic inmates who had been exposed to the virus. Employees without symptoms at some units also were then able to be tested by TDCJ.

During the pandemic, epidemiologists and prisoner rights advocates have called for mass testing of those incarcerated in jails and prisons, where disease spreads quickly in crowded and often unsanitary conditions. Being able to identify and separate infected inmates, including those without symptoms, from healthy prisoners is a large part of containing the spread of the virus, said Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

But infectious disease experts have also called for the release of more prisoners to combat the coronavirus. Having less prisoners in a facility allows for more social distancing between people locked up and working inside, the Infectious Disease Society of America said in a brief on the coronavirus in correctional facilities. It also puts less of a strain on medical facilities within prisons and in their communities, which are often in rural areas, the brief said.

Advocates have called for the release of those eligible for parole who are older or have illnesses that make them more susceptible to severe illness or death from the virus. Many inmates have also been approved for release on parole already, but can’t leave the prisons because they first have to complete programs that may be in limbo now.

The decision to release more prisoners falls to Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, neither of which have indicated they have any plans to do so. Abbott said in March the answer is not releasing dangerous criminals to the street, but containing the virus within the prison system.