Texas prisons close to new inmates in coronavirus fight, causing concerns at county level

Posted at 5:58 PM, Apr 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-13 19:49:29-04

The Texas State Department of Criminal Justice changed things up for counties all over the state this past weekend.

The prison system says it will no longer accept new inmates from county jails until further notice, as it works to fight the spread of coronavirus behind bars.

It turns a state problem, into a local problem.

At the time of the order, 167 state prisoners and 72 TDCJ employees had tested positive for the virus at units throughout Texas.

And when the number of coronavirus cases doubled in Texas prisons in just one day last week, TDCJ Executive Director Brian Collier decided to keep new inmates out.

That's a problem, because jails, meant as "pre-trial" facilities aren't equipped to hold people long-term as prisons do.

Then, there's the cost.

"Right now, we're housing approximately 95 additional inmates every two weeks," said McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara, who adds, at that rate, he'll run out of room in two months.

And at a cost per day, per inmate, at $75, the extra guests won't come cheap.

This is not good news for taxpayers and business owners like Jeff DeMaria, whose barbeque restaurant just squeaks by on take-out orders.

"What if that means raising taxes? Uh, we'll all do our part, I guess. Because that's what this country is about," he said.

Others believe we have too many expenses right now.

”We definitely, we're spending on so many things already, we do not need the added expense,” said Waco taxpayer Petra Ashleman.

McLennan County leaders say they have options on finding extra money, and may not have to ask taxpayers for it.

”Well, I can say, with credit to the court, that we have, in prior years, budgeted so that we would have a reserve fund and so that not all unforeseeable costs have to be passed on to the taxpayer,” Explained McLennan County Commissioner Patricia Miller, who represents district two.

Good news, maybe. The question no one can answer?

How much longer this virus crisis will go on.

"We're just going to be stuck with these people, right now, i guess, indefinitely. From a county standpoint it's certainly not a good thing," McNamara said.

So far one Texas prison inmate and one correctional officer from different units have died from the virus. Twenty of the state's more than 100 prisons remain on lockdown.