State prisons shut down visitation last March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Starting next Monday, Texas inmates will be able to resume in-person visits with family and friends for the first time since the governor declared a public health disaster a year ago, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
In the last year, Texas prisoners have struggled through the pandemic, getting sick by the hundreds and seeing fellow inmates and prison staff die from COVID-19 — all without being able to see their loved ones.
The visits will be allowed at all of the state’s nearly 100 lockups, with some new limitations.
Visits will need to be scheduled in advance, inmates will be allowed two in-person visits a month, and only one adult can visit at a time in order to allow for social distancing, the agency said. Before entering a state prison or jail, visitors will need to test negative on a rapid results coronavirus test, similar to the protocol at the Texas Capitol. Face masks will be required upon entry, and no physical contact will be allowed.
“That’s a safe thing to do, but I know a lot of the family members are going to be upset and want to hold their family members,” said Maggie Luna, a peer policy fellow with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “But I am just grateful that they’re starting it again.”
Some lockups have begun allowing video visits, but not all. And Luna said phone calls are intermittent and especially hard to come by for those in solitary confinement, who typically don’t have phone access. She said some inmates’ mental health has deteriorated. TDCJ said in its statement it expanded phone access and began video visits because it understood “the importance of communication with loved ones.”
Texas prisons and jails, often crowded and unsanitary, have been ravaged by the coronavirus. About 300 TDCJ inmates have died after contracting the virus, according to the Texas Justice Initiative. More than 40 prison employees have also died, TDCJ reported.
Recently, the agency has reported a decrease in the number of inmates and staff members testing positive for the coronavirus. Last August, about 4,000 inmates and more than 1,000 employees at a time would test positive for the virus, according to TDCJ data. On Monday, the agency reported about 600 active cases among inmates and more than 500 for staff. A spokesperson for the agency said geriatric units are still routinely testing all inmates, while the rest of the lockups undergo surveillance testing that can trigger mass testing.
Although TDCJ has received tens of thousands of doses of coronavirus vaccine, the agency has not yet chosen to vaccinate its inmate population.
So far, 628 inmates in TDCJ have been vaccinated, only because a freezer failure last month prompted a rush to get thawing doses into as many arms as possible, the agency reported. The inmates were all in the state’s vaccination phase 1B, in which older people and those with chronic medical conditions are eligible for the vaccine.
“The TDCJ believes it can safely resume limited face-to-face visits and access to volunteers with appropriate safety measures in place,” the agency statement said.
Those already on visitation lists may begin scheduling visits starting Wednesday by calling the prison or jail. TDCJ said an online booking system will soon be implemented.
Photo: The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has not allowed in-person visitation during the pandemic. Starting next week, visits will be allowed at all of the state’s nearly 100 lockups, with some new limitations. Credit: Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune