Notes of Conference Call June 25, 2021, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler Call commenced at 1:30 p.m. with a roll call of participants by TDCJ employee Susie Gunnels. Groups represented were Texas Inmate Families Association…TIFA, Epicenter, FAITH, and the Prison Show. Some agency staff and departmental directors were on the call to make reports and/or answer questions. Some repetitions of questions/comments/answers have been omitted, combined, or move out of chronological order to be placed nearer to the related subject matter. The call was chaired by Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director.
Mr. Mendoza began the call by apologizing for the late notice of the call and for unintentional confusion about visitation changes that surfaced after the Wednesday conference call. TDCJ does desire clarity and transparency in this matter. TDCJ Director of Correctional Institutions Division, Bobby Lumpkin, his Deputy Director John Werner, and their counterparts from the facilities, Allison Dunbar and Mr. Givens were on the call. Mr. Mendoza reiterated that the private facilities would be following the same operational procedures regarding visitation.
Mr. Mendoza’s opening, background statement, to apply to everything else said, is that going forward, visitors will EITHER show proof of vaccination OR undergo rapid testing for Covid, with a negative result required, for admission to the unit. Once the visitor is admitted, IF the inmate has been vaccinated, AND is eligible for a contact visit with that visitor, the visit can proceed as in pre-Covid times, with contact, with snacks, and for a two-hour period.
For contact visitation, these two requirements must be met, whether the unit has achieved the 70% vaccination goal or not. Mr. Lumpkin gave the list of units that have already met or exceeded the goal of 70% vaccinated: They are Duncan, Terrell, Pack, and Jester 3. He describes these units as “fully open.” According to the Wednesday conference call, this means that ON-UNIT operations, including things such as recreation, chow hall, classes, religious services, dayroom activities, volunteer activities, etc., are running as in pre-Covid times. He said that other units are close to achieving the goal. The agency will review vaccine status weekly and update the website to show which units have been “fully opened.”
In response to a later question, Mr. Werner said that on a 70% vaccinated unit inmates will be allowed to go about their unit business without masks. However, non-vaccinated inmates still cannot get a contact visit, even if the unit as a whole has reached the 70% goal. Mr. Lumpkin responded to some questions which had been submitted by advocacy groups after the Wednesday call, including some answered by the information above. For a contact visit, the inmate must be vaccinated; the visitor may be vaccinated or have a negative rapid-test the day of the visit. No inmates are being transferred in order to achieve 70% vaccine status for a unit.
(The following paragraph includes some responses by Mr. Lumpkin and by Mr. Werner to questions asked during the course of this call.) Mr. Lumpkin stated that a conference call was held with all wardens regarding the new visitation procedures. All units should be aware of the current procedures. Progress is being made on getting online registration for visitation up and running but it is not ready yet. Visitors will continue to call the units to schedule visits, whether in-person or by video and tablet. The Monday/Wednesday/Friday afternoon visitation times will continue, along with full-day visitation on Saturday/Sunday. All visits are by appointment. No special visits will be allowed at this time.
In response to a later question, he said that on the 70% vaccinated units, there can be a return to weekly or three-times monthly visits for inmates who had that schedule pre-Covid. On units that have not reached the goal, there is a limit of 2 visits monthly, whether 2-hour contact visits or 1-hour non-contact visits or a combination. Contact marriages may take place on the 70% vaccinated units and must be scheduled through the office of Chris Carter on a case-by-case basis.
Prison Show and TIFA Director both asked TDCJ to be sure to update the TDCJ Facebook page and other web and social media sites after today’s call, since there has been a lot of confusion there as well about the new visitation rules. Mr. Mendoza expressed concern that trying to endlessly explain minute details sometimes causes even more confusion, but said they will look at the posts.
TIFA Chapter Leader asked about units opening back up to ministry groups. Mr. Lumpkin re-iterated that units with 70% vaccination status will work with Mr. Carter to open up for those activities. After the call, I emailed Huntsville with some clarifying questions and received responses from Mr. Lumpkin. My email to him and his replies are pasted in below.
Are the following statements true according to what TDCJ intends at the present time? We are speaking in items 1-4 of inmates who are eligible for contact visits under pre-Covid rules, and the visitors who were eligible to have contact visits with the inmate.
1. Regardless of the vaccine status of a unit, whether the 70% goal has been reached or not, to get a contact visit the inmate must be vaccinated. CORRECT
2. In addition, the visitor must have a negative rapid test or proof of vaccination to get the contact visit. CORRECT
3. It would seem that if both these things are true regardless of the unit vaccine status, the rules for contact visits hinge ONLY on items 1 and 2. Is that correct? CORRECT
4. Statements about units with 70% vaccination rate returning to pre-Covid operations, or opening up fully, will apply only to movement and operations on the unit, apart from visitation. Is that correct? CORRECT
5. On a unit with 70% vaccinated status that includes some volunteer activities in its “opening up fully,” will volunteers be required to pass rapid tests or prove vaccination status? YES
6. On a unit where volunteer activities have resumed, will inmates be required to be vaccinated to participate in interactive projects or will they be allowed to participate with a mask? Units that have reached the 70% vaccination rate, ANY INMATE WILL BE ABLE TO PARTICIPATE IN ACTIVITIES. We highly encourage those who have not been vaccinated to wear a mask when participating.
Notes of Conference Call May 19, 2021, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler.
Call commenced at 10:07 a.m. with a roll call by TDCJ employee Susan Gunnels of groups participating: TIFA…Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek and some TIFA Chapter Leaders, Epicenter, Texas Cure, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, the Prison Show, FAITH, and Texas Connected. Some agency executive staff and departmental directors or their deputies were on the call to make reports and/or answer questions. Some repetitions of questions/comments have been omitted. Some questions/comments have been moved out of chronological order to be placed nearer to related subject matter.
The call was chaired by Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director.
Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff, gave a Covid snapshot for the State and for TDCJ. The 7-day average of new cases in the state is now fewer than 1300 per day. This is significantly lower than about two months ago. Hospitalizations for Covid also continue to decline. There are currently about 2300 in the state. TDCJ’s numbers are also down, 74 active cases of Covid in the inmate population and 256 active cases among employees. Testing continues. Yesterday’s announcement by Governor Abbott concerning the state-wide mask mandate specifically exempted state-run hospitals, nursing facilities, jails, and TDCJ. Those agencies will make their own decisions regarding continued use of masks.
Rene Hinojosa, TDCJ Director of Parole Services: During Covid, required “office visits” with clients were mostly undertaken in the field…at home, work, or treatment facilities. Beginning June 1, clients will be brought back to the office on a staggered schedule so that good social distancing and other Covid protocols can be maintained.
Mendoza: The IT Division continues to push out our tablet visitation initiative. There are now 46 units with video visit capability. The website will continue to be updated. You can also contact Susan Gunnels for the most up-to-date list. Roach, Hightower, B. Moore, Duncan, and Stringfellow units are all in their final testing phase and will be up and running for tablet visitation soon. Another list of units is currently being assessed as to what logistical changes and additions are needed to be able to provide the tablet visitation service. We plan on extending that service to all units. It will be a regular part of our visitation possibilities. There are no plans to phase it out. Tablets for personal use are still in the works. We are getting close; it is looking good. We are not able to make any further public announcement at this time.
There are some changes to visitation coming. We are now permitting up to two adults…18 and over…and two children for visits on the unit. Those visits will still be for one hour at this time. We will increase the time, as we deem it safe to do so. Visits on the unit will continue to be by appointment only and will require rapid testing for Covid, OR presentation of a valid vaccination card showing it has been at least 14 days since the bearer of the card received the final dose needed for the named vaccine.
Bobby Lumpkin, TDCJ Director of CID: The changes described by Mr. Mendoza will be implemented starting June 1. Families may begin calling for June visitation appointments on Monday, May 24, at 8:00 a.m. Remember there is a high volume of calls on some units for these appointments. Please be patient. Two visits of one hour each are permitted each month. We are still working to set up online scheduling but with so many changes, ongoing changes, in the works, it has been difficult to get that appointment system up and running. Continue to call your unit to schedule visits to the unit or by tablet.
Mendoza: Please remember to utilize the following resources for problems you cannot resolve with your unit. First, the new TDCJ Office of Family Services: email@example.com
Or contact the new office of independent ombudsman which reports to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, TBCJ: firstname.lastname@example.org The link on our website has additional information about this office, including phone numbers, and states that bilingual staff is available. www.tdcj.texas.gov/tbcj/oio/index.html
TIFA Ch L: Given the new latitude for those who have been vaccinated, how about letting those visitors also go without masks.
Mendoza: We will continue with masks for all at this time. Remember we are taking baby steps and trying to open back up safely.
TIFA Ch L: Since the CDC has reiterated that surface transmission of Covid is not a big concern, and surfaces are being sanitized, please open dayroom activities such as games, and rec yard activities such as basketball. The inmates need these opportunities for interaction and some sense of normalcy and better morale.
Mendoza: We will keep that request at the top of our list for consideration and discussion.
TIFA: We hear rumors that moves and jobs transfers are happening to separate inmates who are fully vaccinated from those who have refused the vaccination.
Lumpkin: There is no truth to that rumor. Please send the name of any specific unit where people believe that is happening.
TIFA: What is the status of the second round of vaccines for inmates? Is there a delay in receiving or scheduling those doses?
Lumpkin: We work together with our medical providers and the State Department of Health Services. The second round of Moderna is rolling out. There are really no delays.
TIFA: We are still getting a lot of questions about who and how many are allowed on video visits. We also have requests to increase the number of video visits to two per month.
Lumpkin: Two adults are permitted. Children are OK if the inmate was previously allowed to have visits with children.
TIFA: Will we have contact visits restored soon since the state is opening up?
Mendoza: Not yet.
TIFA: Please clarify the timeline for when funds should be available to inmates once their stimulus check has been received. Is there a backlog of making those available? Is there, for example, a 4-6 week period, or 6-8 week time after a check is endorsed and sent to the trust fund before the money is available to the inmate?
Mendoza: We have already seen inmates using those funds. There is no backlog I am aware of. Please share specific units if you know of problems.
TPAA: Perhaps the question is related to the fact that an inmate’s account is frozen for a time when large amounts are deposited.
Mendoza: I will check.
Ms. Cromwell (organization uncertain): Are questions for the medical ombudsman still directed to the same TDCJ contacts?
Prison Show: What is the status of food on the units?
Mendoza: I’m unaware of any problems. We are not receiving complaints. Please send any specific concerns.
Prison Show: Is TDCJ catching up on routine medical services after the Covid slow-down?
Mendoza: Again, we are unaware of any problems. I have seen the process working as I have been on the units. Please email any specific problems.
Prison Show: Thank you for the tablet visits. Those seem to be going well.
Epicenter: The staff at Polunsky has been especially helpful when there are any problems with the video visits. Thanks. We know that Polunsky is receiving a second round of vaccines today. We also know that many of our Second Lookers have not received even the first round of vaccines.
Mendoza: All units are being reached with vaccines.
Epicenter: Covid exposed the strengths and weaknesses of TDCJ’s medical services. Yesterday the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice removed a large number of inmates from the group of people who might be helped by the Second Look bill by changing the range of ages it would cover. Our Second Lookers are people who have come to adulthood in prison and many are now moving to geriatric status. We have had four Second Lookers die in the past six months. Their medical needs are unique. Does TDCJ have a plan in place to deal with the medical care of this population?
Mendoza: We do have plans in place. The question is very broad. May we have a conversation about this offline?
TIFA: There have been concerns about flooding around the state and more adverse weather is expected. Is TDCJ being proactive in planning for such an eventuality?
Mendoza: We have had no operational issues or need to move anyone so far.
Call was adjourned at 10:48 a.m.
Notes of Conference Call April 14, 2021, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler.
Call commenced at 10:00 a.m. with a roll call by TDCJ employee Susan Gunnels of groups participating: TIFA…Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek and some TIFA Chapter Leaders, Epicenter, Texas Cure, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, the Prison Show, and FAITH. Some agency executive staff and departmental directors or their deputies were on the call to make reports and/or answer questions.
The call was chaired by Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director. He spoke in his introductory remarks of a “monthly update,” giving some indication of the frequency TDCJ expects to make conference calls with the advocacy groups. He also emphasized the desirability of emailing questions for the calls in advance, to Susan Gunnels, so the agency has time to research and have as much good information about our questions as possible at the time of the conference calls. TIFA also encourages prison families to be emailing on your own to appropriate TDCJ departments with questions and concerns. You have access; you have a voice; you do not have to wait for an intermediary to ask questions about TDCJ policies or about issues on your loved one’s unit.
Mendoza: a Covid snapshot…We are still following our Covid protocols and mitigation measures. We are happy to report that numbers of positive cases continue to decrease drastically. There are currently about 239 active cases of Covid in the inmate population and about 373 among staff members. As more light is seen at the end of the tunnel, we look forward to getting to whatever the “new normal” turns out to be.
There have many questions about personal use tablets. Contrary to rumors a bid has NOT been awarded. That is still in the review process. Because of procurement policies I am not able to say much at this time, but NO BID has been awarded.
Regarding the current in-person visitation, Mr. Bobby Lumpkin of C.I.D, and Mr. Givens from the private prisons are on the call and can take more questions on this subject. We are announcing that beginning May 1st, TWO persons will be allowed in the new visitation process. That may be two adults who are on the visitation list, or one adult and one child aged 13 or older. We are moving to open up visitation slowly. We want to be safe and to be sure we can continue to operate safely but we will increase access for family visitation as we can do so safely. Thanks to all of you who are helping to make the current process work. We welcome your feedback.
Regarding vaccinations, we work with Texas Department of State Health Services, DSHS, and the CDC for vaccination protocols. TDCJ has received about 49,000 doses of vaccine so far and has administered about 31,000 to prison population and staff. Those were mainly the two-dose Moderna vaccine. About 3400 inmates and 150 staff did receive the one-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine before that was put on hold by the CDC. We have no negative reports so far from anyone who received the J&J. We will follow the guidelines given to us regarding that.
Regarding the resumption of dayroom activities…some have asked about adding or increasing dayroom activity on the units, since good disinfectant procedures are being followed. TDCJ is content with our current protocols.
Bobby Lumpkin, TDCJ Director of CID: Scheduling for in-person visits for May will start Friday, April 23, at 8:00 a.m. Scheduling is still being done by phone with the individual unit. As Mr. Mendoza said, beginning in May a visit may include 2 adults, or 1 adult and a child 13 or older. Those children will undergo the same rapid testing protocol for admission to the unit as the adults do. Visitation and the rapid testing is going well so far. We have received good feedback. There were 17 positive tests in March and 12 so far in April for visitors or volunteers coming to the units.
For tablet and video visits, we continue to work with the IT department and are about to begin work on 10 more units for tablet visitation.
The three yearly seasons for families to send regular greeting cards are about to begin. The first round is for cards postmarked April 25-May 9. (See poster attached to these call notes or in the FILES section of the TIFA Facebook pages for full details and dates.)
Mendoza: I’ll remind you that the private prisons will be following TDCJ CID protocols for visits and mail policies. We will take additional questions from the groups at this time.
TIFA Chapter Leader: Thanks for the in-person visits. I think they are going great. I have no problem wearing a mask as we go in. Will you consider allowing us to lower masks once we are seated for the visit? Being able to see a person’s mouth makes it so much easier to understand what is being said. Good procedures are being followed to disinfect the area between visits.
Lumpkin: We will consider that, but we are not allowing it at this time. We do have some masks with transparent mouth area available.
TIFA Chapter Leader: I am an advocate for and participate in some prison ministries. I appreciate that the units are beginning to open up to ministry groups. Although they still are not able to touch inmates. the ministry volunteers have more direct access to our loved ones than families have. They can be in the same space with our loved ones while we still have to be separated by plexiglass and phones. Why is that distinction being made?
Mendoza: I understand that may not seem fair. The rationale may not satisfy you but volunteers are being treated like staff. They have more access because they are on the unit on a regular basis instead of just coming in randomly, once or twice a month.
TIFA Chapter Leader: Who decides…is it the Governor?…who will get vaccines? Obviously, 49,000 doses is not enough to vaccinate TDCJ population and staff. Some other states have already vaccinated all inmates.
Mendoza: Early in the pandemic, TDCJ submitted a vaccine plane of action to Texas DSHS, which has jurisdiction over the state vaccine plan. Our vaccination plan comes under the direction of DSHS, the CDC, and our medical providers.
TIFA Chapter Leader: If we have concerns can we contact DSHS?
Mendoza: Let me find out the definitive answer on that and get you some contact information.
TIFA Chapter Leader: Is dayroom activity on the units standard across the agency or being decided on each unit?
Lumpkin: No units are currently on precautionary medical lockdown, although some might be on annual inspection lockdowns. There should be some dayroom activities available, such as TV time, with appropriate social distancing. We are not allowing board games or balls to be used at this time, due to ongoing Covid protocols.
TIFA Chapter Leader: If there is not basic dayroom access on a unit may we report that to you?
Jennifer Erschabek, TIFA Executive Director: Will you give us an update on the transfer of services from the old Ombudsman’s office to the new Ombudsman and the new Family Services Office…contact information, etc.?
Mendoza: Yes, the new Office of Family Services, under the direction of Leonard Echessa, will report directly to TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier. Please ask Susan Gunnels for more specific contact information for that office…emails and phone numbers. Mr. Echessa and his team will help with inquiries that would have gone to the previous Ombudsman, part of the ARRM department under Mr. Dunbar. The new Ombudsman’s office will report independently to Texas Board of Criminal Justice, not directly to TDCJ. That department is currently working on staffing and location and getting functional.
Erschabek: How many staff persons will the new Ombudsman’s office have?
Mendoza: The previous office had 17 staff members. The new Ombudsman group will consult and decide how many are needed.
Erschabek: Will the job descriptions change?
Mendoza: We do expect some changes as part of that move.
(Communication with Ms. Gunnels after the call yielded this contact info:)
Office of Family Service
Leonard Echessa, Manager (936) 437-6319
Kriesten Jenkins (936) 437-6725
Megan Lewandowski (936) 437-6360
TPAA: Are we still expecting to have online scheduling for in-person visits?
Lumpkin: Yes, we are still working on that. As units are added, as changes to the protocols are made, the coding of that scheduling program has to change.
TPAA: You mentioned 10 new units would add tablet visitation. Can you tell us which units will be next?
Lumpkin: Not now. The list is not finalized yet.
TPAA: There were a lot of misunderstandings by unit mailrooms about various paper greetings that were approved by TDCJ. We are thankful to Tammy Shelby in Huntsville for working with us to clarify things. Have all units been informed about the greeting card open seasons so families will not have cards trashed or returned?
Lumpkin: They will be ready. I have visited with some of the mailrooms myself. Our protocols for this project have actually used suggestions from some of the mailrooms.
Prison Show: I have two questions. First, is TDCJ getting caught up with medical requests…with all the people whose medical care was deferred with Covid stickers? And, who should we address when there are still so many complaints about various forms not being available on some units?
Mendoza: Yes, we are still catching up, on medical and operational issues. Medical care is always a priority. All the calls we received about forms are followed up. We did identify some production deficiencies after previous reports. Continue to share information when forms are not available on the units. We will follow up.
Prison Show: I appreciate that. I did lose someone personally last year, because of lack of medical care.
Mendoza: Know that we do hear the requests for review and changes from the various family groups. We do consider your requests. We are trying to move forward, but moving slowly and safely will remain our priority. We will move one step at a time and will not compromise safety by moving too quickly. Slowly is working for us.
Call adjourned at 10:45.
Notes of Conference Call on Re-opening Visitation March 10, 2021, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler. This explanation of notes is considerably different from the usual. Please read.
This call was primarily clarification and amplification of the announcement regarding VISITATION which was posted this week on the TDCJ website and TDCJ social media. After a few opening remarks, I have pasted in that announcement and then added in italics comments made by Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director, Mr.Bobby Lumpkin, TDCJ Director of CID, or Ms. Allison Dunbar, Director of Private Facilities, without always noting who was speaking or in what order the comments were made. Some answers to questions made by advocacy groups have also been incorporated into the italicized additions, without noting which group asked for that information. Many questions asked late on the call were for a repeat of information already included in the published document or already addressed on the call. Those questions have not been included in the question section. Ms. Dunbar emphasized that private facilities will be following the same procedures and guidelines as the TDCJ-directed units for resuming visitation. Mr. Mendoza spoke first, at length, then invited Mr. Lumpkin and Ms. Dunbar to add their comments and clarifications. Next, Mr. Mendoza addressed some of the common questions that his office has received since the announcement was released, then advocacy groups were allowed to ask further questions relating to the subject of visitation only.
Call commenced at 10:05 a.m. with a roll call of groups participating by TDCJ employee Susan Gunnels: TIFA…Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek and some TIFA Chapter Leaders, Epicenter, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, Texas on the call.
Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director chaired the call and called on TDCJ Chief of Staff Jason Clark to bring a Covid update.
J. Clark: Positive test results and active cases of Covid are stable or decreasing across the state, including inside TDCJ. However, there are new cases arising and mitigation efforts are still important.
Mr. Mendoza emphasized that we are talking about MODIFIED in-person visitation access; this is an effort unlike any ever seen in TDCJ. The agency has had much collaborative discussion internally with various departments and also externally with other state agencies, as they work to bring back in-person visitation, slowly and safely.
TDCJ News (See the basic announcement on the TDCJ website; today’s additions are in italics.)
Texas Department of Criminal Justice to Resume In-person Visitation
Beginning Monday, March 15, 2021, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will resume in-person visitation at all units statewide. Visitors on official visitation lists may begin registering for Face 2 Face in-person visitation times starting Wednesday, March 10, 2021, at 8:00 a.m. by calling the unit of assignment of the inmate they would like to visit. In coming days, the call-in scheduling system will be replaced by an on-line visit booking system. All units are included, system-wide, state and private facilities. Appointment scheduling began this morning at 8:00. By 10:00, about 1000 visits had already been scheduled, for visits through March 31. Appointments are only being made for the month of March at this time. April visits may be scheduled beginning Friday, March 26, at 8:00 a.m., one week before the first date for April visits, Friday, April 2. Appointments will only be available for the current month. Information Technology Department…IT… is working to set up an online registration process. Currently, phones are extremely busy, unavailable at some units. It will slow down. Keep trying. If a visitor must cancel a visit, they should call the unit. That will not count as a visit received by the inmate.
Visits will be different than in the past. Initially, eligible inmates will be allowed two in-person visits per month. A family may schedule the two permitted visits on succeeding days of the same month…for example one visit on a Friday and another the next day, Saturday. The two visits may be scheduled on the same call. To allow for social distancing, visits will consist of one adult visitor. Visits will be one hour in length. Video visits will not count against the number of in-person visits each month. At this time: NO CHILDREN, NO PHOTOS, NO VENDING MACHINE ACCESS. NO EXTENDED VISITS FOR THOSE TRAVELING LONG DISTANCES. Limitations are temporary, as modified in-person visitation is being rolled out and can be expected to change.
Visits will need to be scheduled in advance, but visitation times will be expanded to Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Death Row visits will be Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1:00 – 6:00 p.m. Families will be encouraged to call the day before the visit to verify if the visit is still scheduled and to arrive at least one hour in advance of their scheduled visit time. Inmates on medical isolation or restriction are prohibited from in-person visitation. If a visit has been scheduled and the inmate goes on restriction they will not get the visit. No contact will be allowed during visits. Barriers will be in place. No items can be exchanged. The entire visit seating area and phones will be sanitized routinely with a 10% bleach solution or vital oxide. NO CONTACT OF ANY KIND…NO HUGGING, NO KISSING, NO SHAKING HANDS.
Prior to entry into the facility, visitors will be required to complete a 15-minute rapid COVID-19 test conducted by the agency. The words “conducted by the agency” refer to the tests being provided at no cost to the public and supervised by agency personnel but the tests are self-administered by each visitor. They are the same nasal-swab tests being used at the Texas Capitol to screen people during the current legislative session, and used by other state agencies. Retesting will be possible if necessary. They will remain in their vehicles until the test is complete and individuals testing negative will be allowed to proceed into the facility. Usual visitation procedures of check-in and search of persons will continue. Visitors must wear appropriate face covering as they approach the highway gate check point. Masks may not have political messages or vulgar words or images and may not be in disrepair. Should they not have one, a mask will be provided. Inmates will also be masked during the visit. (See below for additional information about clear masks for hearing impaired individuals.) Hand sanitizer will also be available to visitors. Staff assigned to visitation areas will be required to wear N95 masks and gloves. Sanitation stations will be available in visitation areas. Unit administrators, such as wardens or other persons of rank will be onsite during visitation to answer questions about procedures or to deal with problems.
IDs must be presented and cleared before testing is done. If visitors have a scannable ID, their information will pop up on a screen. If the ID is not scannable, employees will have to enter information by hand. If a phone number is provided, visitors can receive an alert about their result from the test vendor. Such notification may arrive before or after verbal notification has been given by TDCJ personnel.
This modified in-person visitation will take place in currently-existing non-contact visitation areas on units where such facilities exist. For the units without non-contact visitation areas, new barriers are being built.
On March 13, 2020, the TDCJ suspended visitation after a disaster declaration was issued by Governor Greg Abbott. The decision, while difficult, was necessary to limit the introduction of COVID-19 into correctional facilities. Through an aggressive testing campaign and strong mitigation efforts, the agency has seen a significant reduction of coronavirus cases in the inmate population and is prepared to begin allowing limited visitation.
Understanding the importance of communication with loved ones, the agency expanded access to the offender telephone system, introduced video visitation which will remain, and implemented other creative opportunities to keep incarcerated individuals and their families connected during the pandemic. TDCJ remains committed to continuing and extending video visitation. The TDCJ believes it can safely resume limited face-to-face visits and access to volunteers with appropriate safety measures in place.
END OF TDCJ PUBLISHED ANNOUNCEMENT AND CLARIFICATIONS. ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS AND RESPONSES FOLLOW. Questions labeled Q were received by email or telephone before today’s conference call. Mr. Mendoza noted that there have been many valid questions posed but because of the nature of Covid, there are some questions where there are no answers. Also many answers will be “not at this time,” because of the agency’s commitment to move slowly and carefully in returning to in-person visitation.
Q: Will a clear mask suffice?…thinking of those visiting hearing-impaired loved ones.
Mendoza: Mr. Lumpkin is working specifically with the hearing-impaired populations at Estelle and at Murray. Masks with a clear mouth area will be provided for hearing impaired inmates and will also be available for visitors on those units.
Q: is there a planned progression in place to return to the previous level of contact visitation?
Mendoza: We do hope to return to full, contact, in-person visitation. It all depends on Covid. We reserve the right to pull back if we see incidence of the virus increasing on a unit.
Q: Will you increase the availability of video visits to perhaps two per month?
Mendoza: Not at this time. We need to keep things simple…not over-extend ourselves; not make promises we can’t keep.
Q: Will you extend video visitation to Death Row and AdSeg?
Mendoza: We will look at that.
Q: Since successful video visitation from kiosks depends on good phone quality and there are problems at some units, will you be testing phones?
Mendoza: Mr. Lumpkin and Ms. Dunbar will look at that.
Q: Will there be additional calls or visits allowed for those on Death Watch?
Mendoza: We have designated Tuesdays and Thursdays as days for Death Row visitation. If you have questions about other protocols, please clarify in email.
Q: Will weddings be allowed during the new non-contact in-person visits?
Q: Will outdoor visitation be allowed?
Mendoza: Not now
Q: When will children be allowed?
Q: When will two adults be allowed?
Q: When will inmates receive vaccinations?
Mendoza: TDCJ is following the mandates of Texas Department of Health and Human Services, the Texas vaccine plan. We are in ongoing discussions with state leaders. They will decide the timeline for general inmate vaccinations.
Q: If both inmate and visitor have been vaccinated will you allow a contact visit?
Mendoza: Not at this time.
Q: If I don’t have to wear a mask out here, why do I have to wear a mask on the unit?
Mendoza: TDCJ Covid protocols are still in place.
Q: If I have been tested, why do I have to be tested again?
Mendoza: I am tested multiple times each week. TDCJ Covid protocols are still in place.
FAITH: Will inmates coming to visitation also be rapid-tested?
Mendoza: No. We feel we are keeping on top of the Covid status of inmates at this time. We are more concerned with what might be coming in to units from outside.
Prison Show: Many people now have cards showing they have been vaccinated. Will they have to take the rapid tests? And if so, what about the fact that antibodies produced by the vaccines may produce false positives to the tests?
Lumpkin: Everyone will take the rapid test. I have had two doses of the Moderna vaccine. I have been rapid-tested at least 20 times since and never received a positive result. False positives for vaccinated individuals does not seem to be a problem for this test.
TPAA: Please address the timing of the one hour visit under these protocols.
Lumpkin: The visit will be a full one-hour visit, from the time the inmate is brought in. If testing and check-in protocols mean the one hour goes past the announced close of the visitation day, the visit will be allowed to continue for the full hour.
TIFA Ch L: Please address expired drivers’ licenses and IDs for visitation.
Lumpkin: Licenses and ID’s that expired after January of 2020 will be honored for visitation at this time.
TIFA Ch L: Regarding two in-person visits per month, callers to Darrington Unit are being told only one allowed and that it is up to the unit.
Lumpkin: No, all units will follow the same protocols. Regional directors are on this call and Darrington Unit will be contacted.
TIFA Ch L: Families are not being allowed to schedule visits with inmates who are on one unit but in transit to another.
Lumpkin: We can check on individual cases, but the person’s status in the progress of that move may make scheduling a visit difficult.
Mr. Mendoza thanked advocacy groups for continuing to help in squelching rumors and disseminating accurate information.
Call adjourned at 10:50 a.m.
Notes of Conference Call February 25, 2021, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler. Some questions and responses from the call have been moved out of chronological order in this summary, in part to place items nearer to related information.
Call commenced at 10:00 a.m. with a roll call by TDCJ employee Cherie Miller of groups participating: TIFA…Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek and some TIFA Chapter Leaders, Epicenter, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, the Prison Show, Tx Connected, and FAITH. Many agency executive staff and departmental directors or their deputies or staff were on the call to make reports and/or answer questions.
Mr. Bobby Lumpkin, TDCJ Director of CID chaired the call and called on TDCJ Chief of Staff Jason Clark to bring a Covid update.
J. Clark: Across the state of Texas new cases of Covid and rates of hospitalization for Covid continue to decline. In TDCJ there are currently about 1200 active cases of Covid among inmates and about 700 positive cases among employees. The agency continues various testing models including random sampling at each unit every three weeks.
We have had a lot of questions regarding Covid vaccines. TDCJ has administered about 10,000 units of vaccine so far. The first doses went to our healthcare workers, then to staff over 65 and those with medical issues or working directly with inmates testing positive for Covid. We will continue to distribute the vaccine as we receive supplies from the state. We also continue our education program for staff and inmates regarding the vaccine.
During the week of winter storms, all 254 Texas counties were impacted at some level, so all TDCJ units were also affected. We monitored the incoming storm and started moving some resources before it hit…items such as food, water, fuel, and winter clothing and blankets…and we continued to resupply as needed and as possible through the week. We are thankful to Director Billy Hirsch and his division logistics for their efforts on the icy roads. There were 25 units without power at some point and 33 units without water at some point. Some of those are units where there were both power and water outages. Some medically fragile inmates, such as those on dialysis, had to be moved. Director Cody Ginsel and his Facilities Management team had personnel on site at each unit, staying onsite during the week, sleeping in the visitation areas. Many units used back-up generators. Water tankers were brought in for many units. All but one unit is back to normal utilities now. The Hobby Unit is still without full water supply because of infrastructure issues in the city of Marlin which supplies their water.
Cody Ginsel, Director of Facilities Management: We had a lot of teamwork going on last week. We did the best we could under the circumstances. At Hobby we are working with the city, actually helping with their repairs and hoping to make things better for the Hobby and Marlin units going forward. The tower and tank at Hobby are in good repair and able to maintain good pressure at this time. The remaining problems are in the city lines. Hobby buildings are being allowed to shower one at a time; all have been showered over the past couple of days. There are 33 portable toilets on the unit for inmate and staff use. There are two 6000 gallon water tankers on the unit. Rental shower trucks have been hard to come by, but some portable showers are headed to the unit today. There are water tankers located now at Marlin and Hobby units and at Wallace and B.M. Moore units, while those units are under boil notice. Wallace and Moore may come off boil notice today. Marlin and Hobby may be under boil notice until next week.
Lumpkin: At Hobby, Regional Director Monroe has been present on that unit several days this week. We appreciate the work Directors Ginsel and Hirsch and Warden Cozby have been doing there. Water tankers will be on those units until the boil notice is lifted.
J. Clark: In February the agency put out bids for tablets to be used by inmates across all units for such purposes as individual programming. We expect to have the results of those bids sometime in March.
TIFA: Please give more details about the proposed tablets for inmates, including costs.
Bryan Collier, TDCJ Executive Director: We invited the companies to send us proposals for a variety of models, including plans for inmate purchase of tablets or for agency purchase and distribution, with inmate purchase of content. We will have a lot of options to look at before we make a decision. TDCJ will make no commission on any tablets; there is no profit to be made here.
TIFA: Would these include the free Gutenberg Library resource?
Lumpkin: From CID, I want to address the many requests we have received to offer inmate photos through commissary, to be sent home to families who haven’t seen their loved ones for over a year. We did study and consider that. It would be a huge undertaking and we have no plans to do that at this time.
We have also had extensive discussions regarding the Inspect to Protect initiative begun last year and have decided to allow families to send greeting cards to inmates on a limited basis. There will be three times yearly when mailrooms will gear up for the very big job of screening greeting cards for contraband and drugs. They will allow items postmarked April 25-May 9, corresponding roughly with Mother’s Day; items postmarked June 6 through June 20, corresponding with Father’s Day; and items postmarked December 11-25 for the Christmas season. This could include cards for any occasion…and mail in colored envelopes…birthday cards, friendship cards, etc…as long as postmarked during the noted dates.
TIFA: Has the agency seen any reduction in the amount of drugs entering the units during this year of restricting those items with Inspect to Protect?
Lumpkin: We do track that. The information is sensitive so I will not give specifics, but yes, an impact has been seen.
Lumpkin: We continue to work on extending tablet visitation to more units. The next three we are working on are Hospital Galveston, Carol Young medical facility, and the infirmary population only at Montford Unit. They are not live yet but will be soon.
TPAA: Are all areas of Estelle Unit online for tablet visitations now or only certain areas?
Lumpkin: There have been some days when no tablet calls were being made from any part of Estelle because of numbers of inmates on precautionary medical lockdowns. I will check to make sure the high security buildings are included when tablet visitation is allowed.
TIFA: Does the agency have a guideline they are looking at, such as some percentage of population vaccinated, that would be the marker for re-opening visitation?
Collier: We are looking at that from a couple of different angles. We will expect visitors to prove their vaccination status and we want to be able to use rapid testing for the virus. Considering the volume of people who would want to visit this is a very big undertaking. We want to open again for visitors and for volunteers. We have a pilot program at Estelle Unit now training our staff to administer the rapid tests. We hope to have some news for you in the next few weeks.
TIFA: Families are very grateful that you are considering how to open visitation.
TIFA Ch L: In addition to looking at testing procedures to make visitation safer, please consider going ahead now to install plexiglass shields in visitation areas, and consider scheduling in-person visits in advance instead of letting people just show up to visit.
Lumpkin: Yes, we have been thinking along those lines and some work orders have been issued for Estelle Unit.
TIFA: Have there been any hospitalizations or deaths within the agency due to hypothermia?
Lumpkin and Myra Walker, Director of TDCJ Nursing Services: No reports so far tied to hypothermia.
Lumpkin: There may have been some whose other medical issues were exacerbated by the cold; not known for sure.
TIFA: On the units which had to use back-up generators during the storm week, are those generators large enough to support the heating systems?
Ginsel: The back-up generators are designed to handle basic security items such as lights, locks, and doors. It is true that a lot of them are not big enough for the heaters. We did move some equipment around to supplement on some units.
TIFA: How many units were without heat?
Ginsel: I will have to check.
TIFA: We have some reports that video visits scheduled through Securus had to be canceled because of quarantine protocols, then the families have had difficulty getting refunds from Securus.
Tina Clark, Director of IT Services: Securus will reimburse or the unit can schedule another visit without charge. If a family has trouble getting one of those means of relief I will be glad to make some calls to assist.
TIFA: Regarding the stimulus payments, we have reports of units where the law library either does not have the necessary forms or is refusing to distribute them…especially happening at McConnell Unit
Marvin Dunbar, TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management: All the law libraries should have supplies and be distributing these forms. Over 6000 have already been given out….600 at the McConnell Unit.
TIFA Ch L: Please work on returning some regular routines to the units. They need access to rec and to dayroom time and to be allowed to interact in the dayrooms. Even where Covid cleaning protocols, including regular spraying of disinfectants, are being practiced, they are not being allowed to DO anything while in the dayroom.
Lumpkin: We are still enforcing limited dayroom access and practicing social distancing.
TPAA: Please address the status of sick call requests. Some are still receiving the stickers denying access to medical if the request is not Covid related.
Walker: Pandemic protocols do continue. How sick call requests are handled on a unit on any given day depends on the number of inmates on precautionary lockdown or quarantine at that unit. There is a daily review of the unit status. The medical professionals on the unit review all sick call requests and do the triage…whether to give full service or only deal with Covid and urgent needs that day.
Prison Show: How many of those denial of care stickers have been issued over the past 10 months?
Walker: We don’t keep track of the stickers. We do keep track of how many people are treated.
TX Cure: For units or areas with medical restrictions, should we be expecting 5-minute phone calls or no calls?
Lumpkin: Those should be 5-minute calls.
Prison Show: How many units received hot meals during the winter storm?
Lumpkin: All units had some hot meals. Even the Hobby Unit had hot meals.
Prison Show: Please address the major mail delays being experienced, incoming and outgoing.
Lumpkin: If you have problems with specific units, please address those to Tammy Shelby. We can’t speak for the delays experienced by USPS, but many unit mailrooms worked this past weekend to deal with the mail piled up from the storm week.
Prison Show: Could we have a number of additional blankets and clothing distributed during the storm?
Lumpkin: I don’t have numbers on that but many inmates did receive additional resources. We moved items around between units in some cases to supplement supplies.
Prison Show: We have reports of gangs monopolizing and/or extorting phone access on some units.
Lumpkin: Please report those details directly to my office.
Many of the advocacy groups expressed appreciation to the agency staff for their help and hard work during the storm week.
Notes of Conference Call January 21, 2021, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler. Some questions and responses from the call have been moved out of chronological order in this summary, in part to place items nearer to related information.
Call commenced at 10:00 a.m. with a roll call by TDCJ employee Cherie Miller of groups participating: TIFA…Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek or TIFA Chapter Leaders, Epicenter, Texas Voices, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, the Prison Show, and FAITH. Many agency executive staff and departmental directors or their deputies or staff were on the call to make reports and/or answer questions.
Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director chaired the call and called on TDCJ Chief of Staff Jason Clark to bring a Covid update.
J. Clark: Across the state of Texas new cases of Covid and rates of hospitalization for Covid seem to be plateauing, though fatalities continue to rise. Some of the biggest hotspots continue to be El Paso, Harris, and Webb counties. TDCJ continues with its various testing protocols…mass testing, random testing, symptomatic testing, and the nursing home model. Over 351,000 inmate tests have been done. There are currently about 36,000 inmates with positive cases of Covid. For TDCJ employees, about 135,000 tests have been done. About 1400 employees are currently showing as positive.
Tina Clark, Director of IT…Information Technology: We have now completed 19,530 video visits across the 25 units which have this capability…12 units with video access through the Offender Telephone Service and 13 with tablets. We are continuing to work on adding other units.
Regarding the OTS, there have recently been significant issues with phones at Ramsey and Lynaugh units. They are up and running again. Securus is working through other work orders to resolve phone problems. There are sometimes issues with getting tech/repair people onto units when they are locked down for Covid.
Bobby Lumpkin, Director of CID: We are working with IT to expand access to video visitation on more sites, especially for the medical units of Montford, Carol Young, and Hospital Galveston. We do not have a date when that service will be live, but we are working on it. We know there have been issues with JPay on several units. We believe there are still about 11 units with problems and expect that they may be back online with JPay within about 24 hours.
Ron Givens, Deputy Director of Private Facilities: We are working to get tablet visitation up at Lockhart, Kyle, and Diboll units, and hope to expand to Lindsey, Bell, and Estes units.
Terrie Hopkins, Director of Commissary and Trust Fund: Currently, the items on our inventory are in stock on most units; we are receiving inventory daily and distributing to units daily.
TPAA: a question for Health Services: in the ongoing testing, why are inmates who previously tested positive not being retested?
Myra Walker, Director of Nursing Services: Some are. There is a prescribed waiting time after a positive test before another test would be administered. My records show that some inmates have been tested three or four times. We are following guidelines. If you have questions about specific units, please let me know.
TPAA: Inmates at Estes who were previously positive are not being retested.
Walker and Lumpkin: will check
FAITH: We have been trying to work on phone issues at a few units. Vance Unit is not responding to questions. Who should we email with questions about problems with phones? There are some reports of gangs extorting inmates regarding phone use. Should/Could there be a limit on the number of calls per person per day…or a monthly minute limit?
Mendoza: For questions regarding administrative/operational use of phone, contact the unit warden, regional director, Mr. Lumpkin of CID or his deputy. For questions regarding technical/mechanical problems with phones, contact Tina Clark with IT.
FAITH: Stevenson Unit reports many officers on second shift refuse to wear masks.
Mendoza: Mr. Lumpkin is making notes as we speak to check on that.
FAITH: Our members also had many questions about the JPay problems. Many still have questions about commissary services on their units. Lack of access to commissary is very stressful for inmates and their families. Thank you for your efforts on these issues. They are also concerned about the transfers from Gurney to Coffield…inmates having to go from a unit with not much Covid activity to one with lots of Covid positives. Are all Covid protocols still in place? Do you have any word on when the TDCJ population will receive the Covid vaccine?
Mendoza: We have not been given a date. We are following the plans given by the State Health Services.
J. Clark: Yes, we are following directions from the State. We are planning an intensive education campaign with staff and inmates regarding the importance of the vaccine. We believe vaccines are a good tool for helping to manage the spread of disease. We know that we need to win hearts and minds. We will again be offering some incentives, as we did with the flu vaccine.
FAITH: Is TDCJ continuing to provide supplements to johnnies and warm food for inmates on lockdown? Also, we have had a report of maggots in food at McConnell Unit.
B. Lumpkin: We continue to do a combination of sack meals and hot meals. Many units or parts of units are able to go to chow. For others we try to provide some hot trays during each week as possible.
Epicenter: On the Roach Unit, some pods on quarantine have recently received only one meal daily. Yesterday, that meal consisted of one egg and one hashbrown patty. There is also no commissary access for those on lockdown. Family members as well as inmates are very stressed by the situation.
B. Lumpkin: I was on the Roach Unit Monday for the noon meal. None of those problems were apparent at that time. I will check on meal service and also commissary problems.
Epicenter: 18 pods on (UNHEARD) unit have not been able to go to commissary, even though they have been off quarantine for some time. When commissary does run, they are not getting to all buildings on the schedule. At Huntsville Unit, some people have been on quarantine for extended times and for several weeks now have access to phones and showers only once every three days.
Lumpkin: will check
Epicenter: We are grateful for those units where access to phones has continued to be from 5 a.m. to midnight.
TPAA: Could we get a list of the 25 units which currently have video visitation, as well as a list of those in line to get the service next?
FAITH: Perhaps the list of units with video visits could be updated on the website.
Mendoza: We can look at getting list on the website updated. Please remember that each unit has unique challenges for installing video visitation. Just because we have a list of units to be brought online next doesn’t mean they will all be ready to go at the same time. We are cautious about giving you a list of where we are working because we can’t promise we can deliver service by any certain date. There first has to be an assessment of the unit’s possibilities, then getting in extra equipment if that is needed. The assessment phase may reveal problems that take extra time. We don’t want the public to think we can be tied down to a date we can’t deliver. We will give you a list of the units where video visitation is currently available.
TPAA: Would you look at increasing the Ecomm spend limits since quite a few commissary items have increased in price?
TIFA Chapter Leader: Please also consider increasing the spend limits for inmates because of those price increases/
Mendoza: We will discuss that. Please email if you have more information regarding that.
TIFA: Regarding the TDCJ Covid Dashboard, we see some units where there are positive cases among COs but none for inmates. How strongly will TDCJ be recommending vaccines to staff members; we know they are not mandatory.
Mendoza: That is correct…vaccines will not be mandatory. The agency’s official position is that vaccines are very important for the protection of ourselves and others. Executive Director Collier and myself are committed to being vaccinated as soon as that is available to us, as an example to the rest of our staff. Some employees in the first eligible groups have already been vaccinated.
TIFA: I have also received my first dose of vaccine. We are doing what we can to educate family members and inmates of the importance of the vaccine. One big problem we are hearing about concerns mailrooms. Our newsletter…which is approved by the agency and addressed and mailed from our printer…is being rejected at times. Our previously approved Christmas greetings were accepted and also not accepted, sometimes both on the same unit. Some stimulus checks seem to have been mis-handled by mailrooms. Mail is SO important, especially given the problems with phones, visits, JPays. These issues are very stressful and very expensive for families to deal with.
Lumpkin: Please send a list of specific units with mail problems.
Epicenter: We are having issues with mailrooms on Stiles, McConnell, and Polunsky units. Chaplaincy Services had us to develop some correspondence courses. Bibles sent with course materials have been frequently rejected.
Lumpkin: Regional Directors are on this call and will also look into this.
TIFA Chapter Leader: Why has the category of inmates recovered been removed from unit listings on the Covid dashboard?
J. Clark: You will find the big, total number of inmates recovered is still available on a tab on the dashboard. As more transfers are happening, it became increasingly difficult to maintain those numbers for individual units, so the numbers were not always indicative of Covid status on the unit.
TIFA: Regarding the dashboard, will you address the lag time between an inmate death and its posting on the website?
J. Clark: When we have only a preliminary autopsy or appearance of Covid for a death, it will be listed as “presumed” due to Covid. When a final autopsy or a medical staff final review has been done, the death will be moved to the “confirmed” category. We know there is a lag, but we do try to update inmate deaths as quickly as possible.
Mendoza: I’d like to remind all our family groups on the call about the October virtual board meeting of TBCJ (Texas Board of Criminal Justice.) The recording of that meeting is still available on social media. Executive Director Collier made a recommendation to that board that TBCJ would assume the role of Ombudsman for TDCJ. We are working to finalize that plan. That will mean the oversight function, the Ombudsman’s office, will move from Mr. Marvin Dunbar’s office to a new Ombudsman who will report directly to TBCJ. That person has yet to be selected. We expect that new chain of command to be operational about February/March.
There is also an internal change in the works. A small department called the Office of Family Services, which will report directly to Executive Director Collier, has been created. The three members of that office will be Leonard Echessa, Kriesten Jenkins, and Megan Lewandowski. Please note these new offices are not yet operational. Continue to address the current Ombudsman’s office with your concerns for a couple more months.
Just a reminder that if call participants will use the question box sent to you with the call invitation, we can look up information for you ahead of time and be ready to give you better answers than “I will check on that.”
Call adjourned about 10:45.
Notes of Conference Call December 29, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler. Some questions and responses from the call have been moved out of chronological order in this summary, in part to place items nearer to related information.
Call commenced at 10:00 a.m. with a roll call by TDCJ employee Cherie Miller of groups participating: TIFA, Epicenter, Texas Voices, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, the Prison Show, FAITH and Texas Connected. Many agency executive staff and departmental directors or their deputies or staff were on the call to make reports and/or answer questions.
Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director expressed Christmas greetings and wishes for a safe holiday season to all. He noted that this is the last conference call of 2020. The agency intends to continue conference calls with advocacy groups in 2021 but the frequency and regularity of the calls may be affected by schedules related to the upcoming legislative session. Ms. Gunnels will continue to send invitations for the calls when they are scheduled.
Updates include information related to the production and supply of agency forms, such as I-60s and grievance forms. They did run behind and many units had forms on back order. Ron Hudson, Deputy Director of Manufacturing, Agri-Business, and Logistics is on the call and will give an update on that issue. All the units should have a supply of forms at this time. Bobby Lumpkin, Director of CID has a process in place to assure that units will be able to keep the forms available to inmates. We have no excuses about running out of these forms, although some of the problem had to do with workforce numbers. Please continue to share problems regarding the availability of forms with Mr. Lumpkin in CID or with Billy Hirsch, Director of MAL.
You know that Eric Johnston has retired as Director of the Commissary and Trust Fund Services. Today we introduce his replacement, Terrie Hopkins, and ask her to introduce herself.
Terrie Hopkins, Director of Commissary and Trust Fund Services: Happy Holidays. I have worked for over 20 years, my entire career in TDCJ, with Mr. Johnston in Commissary and Trust Fund. I have met many of you at PACT conferences and chapter meetings. I have been involved in the business of the department and the day-to-day administration of the commissary and trust fund. We have 150 active commissary locations for inmates and 3 warehouse/distribution centers around the state. Though we, like other retail suppliers, have dealt with some shortages during the Covid crisis, all our contracts are in place and at the present time all our warehouses are fully stocked. We strive to provide excellent service to TDCJ executives, inmates, family members, and advocacy groups. (Becky’s NOTE: Ms. Hopkins TDCJ email address is email@example.com I had a nice conversation with her after the conference call. She has an open-door policy but also gave me a couple of other names in her department who can assist with questions about distribution of commissary items. Mr. Randy Johnson is one of her assistant directors. Under him is Jason English. Regional commissary managers report to Mr. English.)
Mr. Mendoza gave an update of Covid issues, in the state and within the agency, in the absence of Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff: We see an upward trend of Covid cases and hospitalizations for Covid around the state. TDCJ continues its various models of testing for Covid: random sampling, symptomatic testing, mass testing, and in five locations recurring testing. Since March the agency has performed over 400,000 tests for Covid. We continue to use medical isolation and medical restriction, along with all our Covid protocols, in an effort to manage the spread of the virus. Our testing shows that 70 to 75% of persons who test positive for Covid are asymptomatic. For this reason, education of staff and prison populations about the nature of the disease and importance of containment protocols will continue to be one of our biggest efforts.
Of those 400,000 tests, about 280,000 were done in December alone. Our current numbers of positive cases are over 1700 inmates and about 1300 staff members. We are glad these numbers are down some from the highest numbers reported early in the crisis. We are also glad to have over 25,000 inmates recovered from the illness and 6000 staff recovered.
We continue to focus on mitigation efforts and welcome reports from your loved ones of units where they see problems with Covid protocols. Mr. Lumpkin of CID and Ms. Dunbar, Director of Private Facilities, will follow up with those reports. We take them very seriously and work to correct them. Please contact Mr. Lumpkin and Ms. Dunbar directly with reports. Also, please continue to contact Health Services for issues with medical care.
We are receiving questions about the distribution of the Covid vaccines in Texas…the availability of vaccine for prison population and staff. We know that some other states are already administering vaccines in prisons. We are working with CDC and Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS…or DISHES) on the state’s vaccine plan. TDCJ will not be making the decisions about vaccines for prisons apart from those agencies. Some units have received doses of the vaccine for the health care workers. There is no specific timetable for distribution in place now.
We have received correspondence and calls concerning rumors that the vaccine will be mandatory for inmates and/or staff. We emphasize that this is not true. The vaccine will not be mandatory for anyone. We will be working diligently to educate staff and inmates about the importance and desirability of the vaccine. We solicit your support in encouraging your loved ones to attend to our educational efforts so they can make the most informed choice about taking the vaccine when it is available.
We will have some updates on video visitation from Mr. Lumpkin and Ms. Dunbar. Please continue to help us quash the rumor that video visitation will replace in-person visitation. That is not true. We are working to increase tablet video visitation but we continue to encounter IT problems, including poor cell service, on many units. Where there is not good reception, additional hardware has to be ordered and the procurement process slows down the project.
Bobby Lumpkin, Director of CID: Please continue to bring problems related to our division to our attention. We’d like to report that the inmates received a robust holiday meal including brisket and chicken and other hot and cold side dishes.
Regarding video visitation, we are still working on some of those tech issues at Hughes and Mt. View Units. We have completed 4522 video visits by tablet and we are working to roll out other units.
Allison Dunbar, Director of Private Facilities: We are also working with IT to initiate video visitation by tablet at three of our units…Diboll, Kyle, and Lockhart. Lockhart is scheduled to be first online but there is no date yet.
Ron Hudson, Deputy Director of Manufacturing, Agri-Business, and Logistics: We switched some of our production efforts, ramped up production, to make sure there is an adequate supply of I-60 request forms, I-27 grievance forms, and SO-7 commissary slips. We also dispatched vehicles for delivery of those forms, to be able to get them out to all units quickly. Our inventory of those items is good. We will continue oversight, weekly monitoring of orders for the forms, so that units always have a good supply. We apologize for the hiccup in production and will work not to let that happen again.
Epicenter: We have a family reporting that Bldg 4, F Pod at McConnell has had no hot water.
Lumpkin: I will contact Facilities Management and the Regional Director to follow up on that.
Epicenter: We continue to have questions from families about the number and format of pictures that can be sent in. Will you clarify?
Lumpkin: In the interest of keeping the call brief, please email me directly and I can follow up on that.
FAITH: Are intra-agency transfers for programs and routine unit transfers on hold right now because of Covid?
Lumpkin: Those transfers are continuing, with appropriate Covid-mitigation protocols.
FAITH: We have families with questions about stimulus checks. How is that process proceeding with the inmate trust fund?
Hopkins: We are currently receiving those checks to deposit. Please email specific problems.
Prison Show: (This participant’s mic was very difficult to hear. Questions attributed are based on the responses given.)
Is TDCJ taking out any fees from the stimulus checks being deposited? And are deposits kept on hold for some period of time?
Hopkins: There are no fees assessed by TDCJ for making a deposit to an inmate trust fund account.
Prison Show: But money may be taken out of inmate funds for health care costs or other fees?
Hopkins: Yes, and there may be a holding period on deposited funds, depending on the amount of the deposit. Please email if there are questions about a specific account.
Prison Show: Are units and areas on lockdown for Covid continuing to receive hot meals?
Lumpkin: Yes, our units are serving hot meals and also nutritionally balanced sack meals.
TPAA: Who should we contact with a report about a staff member tested positive for Covid who continues to report for work?
Mendoza: If you have a unit and a name, please email that.
TPAA: Will do.
Mendoza: Thanks to all participants. These calls will continue in the new year, although they may be sporadic because of the schedule of the legislative session. Safe and Happy New Year to all.
Notes of Conference Call December 9, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of the call by Becky Haigler. Some questions and responses from the call have been moved out of chronological order in this summary, in part to place items nearer to related information.
Call commenced at 2:00 p.m. with a roll call by Susie Gunnels of groups participating: TIFA, Texas Voices, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, the Prison Show, FAITH, and Texas Connected. Many agency executive staff and departmental directors or their deputies or staff were on the call to make reports and/or answer questions.
Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director welcomed callers to day 276 of Covid response within TDCJ. He stated that the main updates for today would concern Covid and video visitation and asked that at question time callers limit themselves to the issues updated today. Other calls and emails are very welcome, to address other issues with detailed questions so that TDCJ staff can have time to research and respond appropriately.
Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff, provided an overview of statewide Covid status and also continuing response to Covid within the agency. In Texas, as well as much of the country, there is an uptick in Covid cases. We continue to have hotspots for the virus in West Texas and the Panhandle, although infections in the El Paso area seem to have plateaued and maybe going down. There are still many new cases arising in larger metropolitan areas, such as Amarillo, and in Dallas, Travis, and Bexar counties. TDCJ continues to employ a variety of testing models to try to track and contain the virus, including 1) symptomatic testing, 2) “nursing home” model of frequent testing on five units, 3) full testing of staff and inmates on some units, and 4) random sampling. There are over 1000 active cases of Covid among TDCJ employees, so the agency continues to take all precautions and to educate staff and inmates about good virus protocols.
Kristina Hartman, Windham Schools Superintendent: Our family literacy program continues to unfold. This will permit incarcerated parents to have parent/teacher conferences with their children’s teachers. We have already made arrangements with several school districts and have a target date of February 1stto begin the conferences, first by conference call and later by video. A funding source to expand the program has been identified.
Follow-up questions by TPAA and Texas Connected revealed more information about how the family literacy program will work. Both men and women inmates who are Windham students will be able to apply to participate. Seven units and 30 individuals will be included in the piloting of the program, with hopes to expand to others as funding through grants permits. The Hilltop unit in Gatesville will be able to involve women from some of the other female units in that area. Windham employees are recruiting the first participants from among current Windham students. Custodial parents will be contacted for their permission; school districts will be contacted to set up the conferences; Windham employees will monitor the conferences.
April Zamora, TDCJ Director of Re-entry services: Re-entry has added 103 new employers during the Covid crisis. Many employers are still actively hiring, and 3102 Re-entry clients have been hired during the crisis. About 35,700 referrals for employment have been made. A hotline for employment information has been set up, which can be used by those released from state jails or by family members.
Michael Rutledge, Rehabilitation and Chaplaincy Services: TDCJ Chaplains continue to work to help maintain family connections during the Covid pandemic. They made over 127,276 calls to date, with that service continuing for units or areas on medical restriction or lockdown.
Ronald Givens, Deputy Director of Private Facilities:We are also working to help keep families connected. We have chosen three of our facilities to participate in the tablet visitation program and are working to get that up and running.
Tina Clark, Director of IT Services: There have been 13, 433 successful video visits, including both formats…phone kiosks and tablets. We are wrapping up deployment in the Gatesville area and are just about ready to announce the next set of units to receive the tablet visitation capability.
There were follow-up questions regarding this issue by a TIFA Chapter Leader and by TPAA. It was clarified that two of the units in the current group are still not actually online for tablet visitation…Hobby Unit and Hughes Unit required some additional hardware but are expected to complete their testing in the next few days. Also, the agency is not ready to announce the next group of units to be brought online for tablet visitation.
Mendoza: We have been receiving quite a few calls and emails from persons repeating the rumor that with video visitation TDCJ is planning to do away with in-person visitation. Please help us get the word out…THAT IS NOT TRUE. Video visitation will be in addition to, NOT INSTEAD OF in-person visits, once we are able to re-instate in-person visits.
Prison Show: I’ll report that the first report I received about replacing in-person visits with video was a statement made by a TDCJ staff person to an inmate.
Mendoza: Also, feel free to email whoever you wish about whatever issues you are concerned about, but please try to target your emails to the persons or departments most closely involved with your issue. When you contact too many people about one issue it ends up slowing down the process of getting a response back to you, as we try to figure out who is working on a particular issue.
Bobby Lumpkin, Director of CID: I’d like to recap some information about our Thanksgiving Day meal. We believe it was a big success and thank all those involved in the preparation and delivery. I personally visited four different facilities to observe. Every inmate received two trays for the holiday meal and we expect that will be the same for the Christmas meal later this month.
Rugged phones continue to be deployed in restricted housing areas and new units are being added for this service.
There was a follow-up question by TPAA regarding charges for calls made with the rugged phones from AdSeg and G5 areas. Some families have reported charges up to $30 for those calls Mr. Lumpkin said there should not be charges for those calls and asked that details of calls where that was not the case be sent to him.
Lumpkin: We are hearing complaints regarding inmate correspondence on some units. Please continue to send problems as identified with specific units. We are following up on those.
TIFA: We do have reports from families of pictures and other mail being rejected, although the items conformed to previously established policies…for example collages on regular copy paper are now being counted as individual pictures and being disallowed. There are a lot of questions.
J. Clark: The issue we are trying to deal with is that we have been besieged by a barrage of inappropriate photos being sent as thumbnail collages. We are revisiting the policy of the number of photos per mailing in conversations today. We want to be equitable while still screening out inappropriate items.
TIFA: It is helpful to families when changes can be announced and clarified in advance of implementing those changes. There is a publication called The Warblerwhich is an arts and education publication intended to be copied and sent into prison units. Some families report The Warbler is not being admitted by the mailroom on their units. I emailed Tammy Shelby in Huntsville about the issue a while back but have not received a reply.
Lumpkin: I will follow up on that with her.
TPAA: Our director is also waiting on a response to several questions emailed to Mr. Lumpkin right after the last conference call.
Lumpkin: I will check.
Prison Show: We have many inmates reporting that I-60 forms are unavailable to them. Also, because of some units not being able to go to the commissary regularly, people run out of writing materials and it’s hard to follow the required process of reporting when forms are not available. Families are not allowed to mail in copies of the forms. After one inquiry a TDCJ staffer told me that the forms were “on backorder.”
Mendoza: Please share with Mr. Lumpkin offline the areas where forms are not available. There should never be a shortage of those forms, which are produced by TDCJ. We can correct that.
Prison Show: We thank you for the progress on video visitation. We still have reports of stickers to deny health care requests. We have a report of an inmate being told there is a 10% fee by TDCJ to handle the deposit of his stimulus check.
Mendoza: That is new information to us. We have not heard of that. Please send specific information.
Ron Steffa, TDCJ Chief Financial Officer: There is no fee being charged by TDCJ regarding the stimulus checks.
Mendoza: We are hoping to have these calls every two weeks. Two weeks from now will be into the holiday period. We’ll talk about scheduling. Watch for the invitation, but don’t wait for the conference calls; call and email with your questions and concerns. We appreciate your support and patience.
Notes of Conference Call November 20, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler. Some questions and responses from the call have been moved out of chronological order in this summary, in part to place items nearer to related information.
Call convened at 10:02 a.m. by Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director with a roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, the Prison Show, and presumably Epicenter, and FAITH. (Some participants were identified by name rather than by organization and I am not familiar with all the individuals on the call. TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director, Jennifer Erschabek.) Many agency executive staff and departmental directors or their deputies or staff were on the call to make reports and/or answer questions.
Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff, gave the “state of the state” update, including the report that new cases of Covid-19, hospitalizations for the virus, and fatalities due to the virus are all on the rise. He listed 15-20 large counties where the greatest increases in new daily cases are being reported. Lubbock and El Paso counties, which had been hotspots for the virus, seem to be stabilizing. The seven-day average rolling hospitalization rate for Covid across the state is running about 7200 beds daily. In TDCJ there are currently over 2300 active inmate cases of Covid and 931 active staff cases. The agency continues an aggressive program of testing for Covid with various models…symptomatic testing, random sampling, mass testing, and a “nursing home model.” TDCJ continues to promote compliance by inmates and staff of the containment measures we know are effective in reducing the spread of Covid…masks, distancing, and hygiene practices.
Mendoza: We want to reassure you that we are constantly reinforcing agency expectations for the practice of these proactive and preventive measures. We appreciate your emails and reports of failures in different areas and we take those reports seriously. When you bring them to our attention we check them out. Please continue to contact us. Feel free to copy Oscar Mendoza and CID Director Bobby Lumpkin when you email wardens and regional directors with Covid issues.
Bobby Lumpkin, TDCJ Director of CID: We are working with the IT division and other departments to increase the availability of tablet and video visitation modules. More rugged phones are going out to restricted housing areas. Right now, areas of general population not on medical restriction should be getting regular access to 30-minute calls. If on medical restriction they should be getting a daily 15-minute call. Restricted housing areas should be getting 5-minute calls whenever possible.
Christopher Carter, TDCJ Director of Rehabilitation and Parole Division: Here is an overview of a new program initiative we are rolling out…an in-prison substance abuse treatment program that is completely voluntary and not parole mandated. The program is starting at the Johnston SAFP Unit in Winnsboro and will go soon to the Veterans’ Re-entry Dorm at Travis County State Jail. It is a six-month program with three phases designed to help participants develop good coping skills and pro-social behaviors. Phase 3 focuses on teaching participants how to ask for and obtain needed assistance going forward. The program is individualized for each participant. Letters have already been sent to invite some candidates to the program. It will promoted in the ECHO newspaper and you can let your loved ones know about the program if they would like to request inclusion. Send names to be considered for the program to Mr. Lucas Phillip. The program will expand to include female inmates as well. (Mr. Phillip’s name was inverted on the call to “Phillip Lucas” but a search of the TDCJ website shows it to be “Lucas Phillip.”)
TDCJ Chaplaincy staff have now completed over 124,000 wellness calls for inmates in various stages of medical restriction and lockdown and facilitated 280 face-time calls from hospitals for seriously ill inmates and their families. Self-study versions of various programs such as Bridges to Life have been provided for about 12,000 inmates on 44 different units.
Question from unknown advocacy group: This is a question regarding the new substance abuse voluntary program. I am submitting some reports to accompany new legislative bills regarding expansion and implementation of this sort of program. May I request and receive some more data about this program? We don’t want to ask for something that is already being implemented.
Tina Clark, TDCJ Director of Information Technologies: We continue to expand video visitation by means of tablets and phone kiosks. The program began successfully at Murray Unit yesterday and Ferguson Unit is being added today. More rugged phones are being deployed to restricted housing areas. About 13,000 video visits have been completed.
Mr. Cody Ginsel, TDCJ Director of Facilities Management, reported on a new air purifying mechanism that is being used on some units. (Some of the details in this section are from email with Mr. Ginsel after the conference call.) The iWave is a self-cleaning, bi-polar ionizing device which clears the air of pathogens, odors, and particulates as air passes over the device in the ductwork of a building. The device produces ions which decompose the particles which pass over it, inhibiting the activity of dangerous substances and making them more able to be removed by other, existing filtration. Lab tests (results available on many websites) show the iWave significantly reduces SAARS and Covid pathogens, E-coli, staph, C-Diff, MERSA, Legionella, and molds, without producing ozone. Many school and hospitals are using the iWave purification system. With the iWave-C Model 4900-10 Commercial Air Cleaner, which TDCJ is using, one device can purify the air for an AC system up to 12 tons in size. That is, an area with a 24-ton unit would require two of the iWave-C devices. There are currently 239 iWave devices deployed on 10 different TDCJ facilities. Another 150 devices are on order. Facilities Management is coordinating with the Health Services division to make sure the iWave devices go first to areas with the most vulnerable populations. Inmates and staff alike should benefit from the use of the iWave devices. There are home versions of the iWave available. Look for iWave-R for residential use.
Follow-up questions for Mr. Ginsell by TIFA and TPAA asked about the locations of the first iWaves, and the configuration of units where they might be used. He re-iterated that his division is working with Health Services to be sure units with the most vulnerable populations are served by the iWaves first. These are units across the state where elderly and medically fragile inmates are concentrated. It was also clarified that the iWave device requires a unit with ductwork…whether that ductwork is currently employed to deliver only heated air or both heated and cooled air. Since the device is being deployed first to the most vulnerable populations, at the present time that will be units which deliver cool air to inmates, but if ductwork for a heating system is in place on other units they could possibly be fitted with iWaves in the future.
Question from unknown advocacy group: We still have reports, most are from Polunsky and Ferguson Units, of medical requests not related to Covid being denied service. Can we expect that to change any time soon?
Myra Walker, TDCJ Director of Nursing Services: We are in a transitional plan and have been moving away from that situation since September 1, but medical services available may still vary from unit to unit, depending on their Covid restriction or lockdown status. The differences have to do with efforts to minimize movement and enforce social distancing on units where the virus is still active. Our department is coordinating with others in the agency to monitor this transition. We track sick call requests and note how they are being dealt with on various units. We may call a unit and ask for a particular patient to be seen when we review sick call requests. Please send emails with specifics for units where inmates are not receiving crucial care.
TIFA: We hear that some trustee camps are being consolidated. Is this related to Covid issues?
Lumpkin: Because of our lowered population we have a number of open beds and are relocating trustees into main buildings where possible. Idling trustee camps helps lower operating expenses. Trustees still have access to all programs they have had in the past.
TIFA: Which trustee camps are being idled?
Lumpkin: W6 at Garza West is completed. Others are in process and we will announce those when complete.
TPAA: Should families expect to be charged for the 5-minute calls from restricted housing areas? Fees of $20+ are being reported by some.
Lumpkin: Are we speaking of the 5-minute calls from the rugged phones?
TPAA: I’m not sure if these are collect calls or calls from the rugged phones. I do know it is mainly being reported by Death Row families.
Other advocacy caller: We echo the high charges for calls from women on Death Row. They are charged much more for their calls and have very restricted access to phones.
Lumpkin: Please clarify details in email. Mr. Mendoza and Mr. Lumpkin say they will check into phone charge discrepancies.
Call was adjourned about 10:40 by Mr. Mendoza. The agency expects to send invitations for the next call in early December but is not prepared to announce the next date today because of increased activity inside the agency at this time.
Notes of Conference Call November 10, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Call convened at 10:02 a.m. by Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director with a roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, Epicenter, and FAITH (TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director, Jennifer Erschabek; TIFA Ch L indicates a TIFA Chapter Leader) Many agency executive staff and departmental directors or their deputies or staff were on the call to make reports and/or answer questions.
Mr. Mendoza welcomed the advocacy groups to the first-ever conference call hosted by TDCJ itself. He indicated the agency plans to continue the calls every other week “as long as needed.” They hope the calls will be increasingly beneficial and useful to the advocacy groups and they ask for feedback as they learn and tweak the process for best results for all.
Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff, gave the “state of the state” update. Across Texas positive cases of Covid-19 and hospitalizations for the virus are increasing daily, with the current active number of cases at more than 7000. Yesterday hospitalizations for the virus were over 5800 and today’s number is over 6100. Hot spots in the state right now include El Paso, the counties of Collin, Dallas, Harris, Tyler, Taylor, and McClennan, as well as Amarillo and the Valley. TDCJ has daily calls with several state agencies, including TDEM…Texas Division of Emergency Management. As TDCJ sees these community hotspots they are going to units in those areas and doing pro-active testing to try to get a handle on how the virus may be impacting those units.
Mendoza: Where there is an increase in virus activity locally, we want to get ahead of the curve by doing internal monitoring that can help us be pro-active instead of just re-active in dealing with the disease. So where there is increased virus activity in a community, there will be an increase of virus-related activity inside the TDCJ units in that area.
We have talked about our compliance assessment teams…this is a group of people who report directly to TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier. They have been charged with checking on the various units and also administrative areas to see that virus protocols are being followed. We appreciate when you let us know where there are deficiencies and we are following up on those. The compliance teams have now completed their first analysis of all locations within the agency. Those were primarily visits for assessment and education. The teams are now repeating their rounds for actual inspections to see if the units and offices are continuing to follow Covid-19 protocols. 21 of those inspections have been completed in this round. Formal reports are submitted to Mr. Collier, who dispatches Mr. Leonard Echessa, Manager of Training and Leader Development, to address and correct shortcomings. We know that loved ones of the family groups continue to report problems with Covid protocols on some of the units. When you pass those reports to us, we take them seriously; we check on them and make corrections as needed. Please continue to report those failures to us.
An ongoing topic of concern is the restoration of in-person visitation. This is day number 247 of Covid response in TDCJ, but we are not at a point to be able to restore visitation safely. The levels of Covid activity in the outside community are an important marker for us and we are not looking at restoring visitation YET.
We have ramped up our video visitations, including adding more tablets, which are working well in the Huntsville pilot units. The tablet visitation is being expanded to the Gatesville area with 25 more tablets which will be used on the following units: Mt. View, Hilltop, Murray, Woodman, Hughes, Hobby, and Marlin. Remember this is a process…getting the tablets, testing the tablets, checking signal strength, perhaps adding signal boosters. We are still acquiring hardware and doing testing. If we know in advance that an area has poor cell phone reception, that will not be our first choice for where to expand video visitation. This is a bureaucratic process, but we will activate the tablet visitation in those units as soon as possible. CID and IT divisions are working together and we intend to increase tablet visitation to as many units as possible. We will also look at adding more tablets to units where the program has shown to be working well. We appreciate your patience. You have Mr. Collier’s commitment that video visitation will be in addition to in-person visitation; it is never intended to be a replacement. If you hear any other report, it is false. Please help us quell rumors. Director Collier says video visitation is an enhancement, not a replacement for in-person visitation.
Dave Saffle, Deputy Chief Information Officer for the IT Division: Since August we have completed about 8000 Securus video kiosk visits; about 2000 tablet visits since mid-September; and about 3 million phone calls in the month of October.
Eric Guerrero, Deputy Director of Management Operations in CID: We are expanding the use of the “rugged phones” to Level 1-A inmates in restricted housing areas at Coffield, Darrington, Eastham, and Ferguson units, and to the expansion cell blocks at Estelle and Clements units. Our staff reports that those are working great. (Mendoza: “rugged phones” are a more durable form of cordless phones.)
We have had a few hiccups with the tablet visitations. Regional directors have been told to communicate to wardens that children are allowed on the video visitations.
(Later in the call a Ms. Mendez [possibly with Epicenter?] wanted Mr. Guerrero to clarify the comments about “video visits for restricted housing at Coffield.” In discussion with Mr. Guerrero, Mr. Mendoza, and Ms. Mendez it appeared that perhaps she had confused video visitation with remarks about extending phone usage to restricted housing areas.)
Guerreo: We are continuing Covid-19 sanitation protocols on all units. We are visiting all areas and looking at security concerns and Covid practices.
Allison Dunbar, Director of Private Facilities: We are also continuing with all Covid-19 protocols and inspections by the compliance teams. We are looking at providing tablet visitation for two of our units.
Billy Hirsch, Director of Manufacturing, AgriBusiness, and Logistics: We have completed the tray lid project for all units. The last four units should receive those lids this week. We have ample PPE in stock. So, some of our factories will be returning to previous production efforts.
TIFA Ch L: Will that include production of more thermals? We have heard some reports of inmates not being able to buy thermals at their commissary.
Hirsch: Our production of thermals for the year is already at 100%. There should be plenty of product out there. Please send a list if there are units where thermals are not available.
Rene Hinojosa, Director of Parole Services: We are evaluating our processes that have changed during the Covid crisis to see if we need to tweak anything, or if there are ways to improve our delivery of services to clients.
TIFA: We saw a lot of video and ZOOM efforts from parole during the pandemic. Will that be continued in areas where the virus is increasing?
Hinojosa: Our video and teleconferencing efforts have been and will continue to be across the state for clients at high risk for the virus, moreso than in geographic areas of high incidence of the virus.
TIFA: Since the statewide levels of Covid cases are increasing, has TDCJ stopped intake from counties again? That is being reported by an Austin news source.
Clark: No, intake is continuing but there is a strong vetting procedure in place. We have good communication with the counties and as people are brought in, groups are housed together for another 14-day quarantine time before being added to the general population.
TIFA Ch L: We are hearing that some officers who test positive for the virus but are asymptomatic are going to work, or in some cases are being required to work.
Clark: That is not true. Asymptomatic employees are required to do normal quarantine.
TIFA Ch L: I will send the name of the unit where this is reported to be happening.
TIFA Ch L: Thank you for your efforts to expand video visitation. We appreciate you clarifying that children can be included in video visits if the inmate is ordinarily allowed to have visits with children. When we had in-person visits two adults could visit at the same time. There are some families where a couple visited a child together pretty much every weekend, but now on video they are restricted to only one adult. Why are video visits restricted to only one adult at a time? Especially where there is a record of adult family members visiting together in the past, we would appreciate your willingness to consider that for video visits as well.
Mendoza: We will look at that. Frankly, just like the question of allowing children on the video visits, we just didn’t think about it when we were setting out rules. The process is new for us; we wanted to move quickly but safely in implementing the visits and we just didn’t think about all the possible aspects. We will have some internal dialogue about that and consider it. Mr. Guerrero has been taking notes. We will discuss it.
TPAA: Can you give us a timeline of when we might expect to see tablet visitation available at all units?
Mendoza: I wish we could give a timeline but it is impossible. Again, this is a big bureaucracy that moves pretty slowly, from acquiring equipment to making infrastructure changes, doing the testing, etc. There is no target date for completion but I can tell you we are pushing forward.
TPAA: About a month ago I sent a list of unit-specific questions, as you have requested us to do on these calls, and I have yet to receive an answer.
Mendoza: Who did you send them to?
TPAA: I didn’t want to rat anybody out, but to Mr. Dunbar.
Mendoza: Mr. Dunbar will respond to your questions.
Mr. Mendoza ended the call about 10:40, promising to host the next one on Wednesday, November 25th. He encouraged advocacy groups to submit questions in advance so that agency personnel can be prepared to respond with better answers on the call instead of having to give a reply of “we’ll look into it.”
Notes of Conference Call October 28, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler. Some questions and responses from the call have been moved out of chronological order in this summary, in part to place items nearer to related items.
Call convened at 10:02 a.m. by Mr. Marvin Dunbar, TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management with a roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, Texas Voices, The Prison Show, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, Texas Connected…Tx Conn, Epicenter, and FAITH (TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director, Jennifer Erschabek)
Many agency departmental directors or their deputies or staff were on the call to make reports and/or answer questions.
Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director chaired the call. He apologized for the need to postpone last week’s call. He again asked that advocacy groups limit questions to Covid-related concerns or items related to today’s agency announcements and send other issues in email to Marvin Dunbar.
Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff: We continue to have daily calls with state health services and the office of emergency management. Across the state positive cases of Covid-19 and hospitalizations for the disease are increasing, especially in the hotspot areas of El Paso, Lubbock, and Midland/Odessa. Fatalities have plateaued but those numbers typically lag behind the numbers of positive cases and may increase again. TDCJ has only a little over 300 positive cases at the present time and we see the greatest problems in the same parts of the state where Covid is surging in the civilian population.
Cody Ginsel, Director of Facilities Maintenance: We are monitoring the extreme cold and ice in the Panhandle area. Our preventive maintenance routine, including testing all heaters and generators, started back in September. We are very vigilant about those things and we have staff available 24/7 to service items if equipment fails.
Mendoza: Regarding visitation, unfortunately, we are still not ready to discuss in-person visits. With a surge of Covid in the state we feel it is not safe for inmates or visitors to do that. We are seeing significant use and success with the video and tablet visits.
Tina Clark: Director of Information Technologies: In the units where video visitation is with the Securus-contracted phones, we have completed 6507 visits since August 17. With the tablet visitation initiative at the five Huntsville units, we have had 913 visits since September 21. That program will be expanding next to units in the Gatesville area. Work is just in the beginning stages for that expansion.
Mendoza: You will remember that Securus offered us 90 days of free visitation with their video system initially. That will end sometime in November. The Garza Unit was late coming online so the free visits will continue there into sometime in January. With the next phase, tablet visitation, that is based on cell technology and we may encounter signal problems at some of the units we are expanding to.
Bobby Lumpkin, TDCJ Director of CID: The tablets will be available next at Hughes, Mt. View, Hilltop, Murray, Woodman, Hobby and Marlin units. Crain in Gatesville already has the Securus video phone setup. Children will be allowed on video visits if the inmate was allowed to have children visit them for regular visitation. We have instructed all wardens to that effect. We are working to bring the cordless phones to more restricted housing areas, and shortening the time between calls for those inmates from 45 days to 30 days, as staffing needs allow.
In the Sanchez Unit in El Paso and units in the Panhandle, Covid hotspot areas, inmates as well as staff have been issued N95 masks. All units have adequate supplies of PPE. We ran into some transportation problems in the Panhandle because of the ice storms. Extra blankets have been made available.
John Lilly, representing Windham School District: We are beginning an after-school tutoring program. The hybrid learning situation during the Covid crisis, wherein students alternate days in the classroom with days of self-study, to provide for more social distancing, means there has been less direct instruction and some students need more interaction with their teachers. Beginning the first week in November, students on most units will be able to ask for extra school hours.
Mr. Mendoza polled the advocacy groups for their questions, reminding them to please limit today’s questions to Covid-related issues or items mentioned by TDCJ staff today.
TIFA: Not directly Covid-related, but per some conversations we had earlier, we are still hearing about the cases being written for masks and some contraband issues. Can we deal with those now or should we continue that conversation offline?
Mendoza: Mr. Lumpkin is looking into that. Let’s follow up later.
TPAA: Are the tablet visits also handled through Securus?
T. Clark: No, that is a TDCJ internal process.
TPAA: Will there be instructions for people on how to set that up?
Lumpkin: When the unit is ready for tablet visits people will call the unit to get set up. They need to wait on calling those new units. We are just starting the process.
FAITH: Regarding the Covid stimulus checks, some inmates don’t know their Social Security Number. Is TDCJ helping them find that information?
April Zamora, Directory of Re-entry services: When we receive an I-60 requesting that information, the unit re-entry case managers are working on that and going through the units to get the SSNs to those inmates for whom we have a verifiable SSN.
Mendoza: The units have distributed about 71,000 forms for requesting the checks and made announcements and distributed information regarding the forms. All units have the forms available in the law libraries and inmates should have access to the law library on their unit.
Epicenter: We have some reports of inmates being denied help when they request their SSN.
Zamora: Who is denying them?
Epicenter: Inmate records.
Zamora: Have them contact the re-entry case manager.
Mendoza: Thanks to TIFA for hosting these calls for everyone through their ZOOM account. TDCJ is working on setting up our own account to be able to host. We expect to be ready to do that in time for the next conference call in two weeks, but please be patient with us as we learn to do this from scratch. We will be hosting the calls every two weeks as Covid continues to be a factor in how we do business. However, two weeks from today is November 11, a federal holiday, so we will move the call that week only to Tuesday, November 10.
Notes of Conference Call September 9, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler. Some questions and responses from the call have been moved out of chronological order in this summary, in part to place items nearer to related items.
Call convened at 10:02 a.m. by Mr. Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff. The roll call of groups participating was by Travis Turner, TDCJ Deputy Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management : (TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director, Jennifer Erschabek; TIFA Ch L indicates a TIFA Chapter Leader)Many agency departmental directors or their deputies or staff were on the call to make reports and/or answer questions.
Mr. Clark gave an overview for Day 185 of TDCJ’s response to Covid-19. For the state as a whole, active cases and hospitalizations for Covid are down 47% since the peak on July 24. 160 counties report numbers flat or declining. In TDCJ the current number of 1874 inmates who are positive for the virus is also down from the previous week. These numbers are good but we can’t let out guard down. We continue to test inmates who are symptomatic and also following up with asymptomatic testing in areas of concern. We work with health care providers to decide on future strategies. This past week, more than 500 inmates have been moved to program units.
April Zamora, Director of Parole and Re-entry Services: We have some good reports about employment for our clients. 387 were hired in August. Last week we had 332 referrals for employment on our website. The previous week there were 886 referrals. So we see that employers are making good efforts to hire people. There were 1147 inmates released last week. We are fielding a lot of calls from families on our re-entry hotline.
Allison Dunbar, Director of Private Facilities Management: We have the same Covid-19 protocols as TDCJ in place on our units and our residential re-entry facilities…the half-way houses and drug rehabilitation facilities. UTMB provides our medical services and we are providing PPE as needed to those areas. We have about 20 positive cases of Covid in our community facilities and we are daily monitoring the status of those areas.
Tina Clark, TDCJ Director of IT: There have been 2668 completed video visits since August 16, on those 11 units where video visitation has started. At the Garza Unit, which was scheduled to be part of that program, equipment needed to be moved and also more equipment was needed. That has been ordered. We are doing some trouble-shooting for the Crain Unit which also had some issues getting video visitation started. Securus is expanding the network capacity there. The tablets for the pilot program should be up and running later this month. There were servers to set up and other infrastructure upgrades needed.
J. Clark: I have had a chance to play with those tablets a little. It is neat technology. We look forward to that service.
TIFA: Regarding the mass testing being done, how long is the turn-around time for the results of those tests, and for the updating of the TDCJ website with those results?
J. Clark: For asymptomatic testing, the average turnaround is about 3 days; once we receive results, the dashboard is updated between 5 and 6 p.m. most days.
TIFA: What are the positivity rates for those tests? It seems like you are not finding many positives.
J. Clark: That is true. We are doing a significant amount of testing and not finding a lot of positives on many units. We have had higher numbers on Crain, Hughes, and Powledge units. Where symptoms show up we are doing more mass testing there.
TIFA: A letter from Crain asks how often they should expect to see fresh fruits and vegetables and other added items in the johnnies.
Miguel Martinez, a Regional Director in CID (not over Region 6 where Crain is located): It is our intention to supplement the johnnies with fresh items. We just got a big shipment of fruits and vegetables in the warehouse yesterday. Those will be distributed.
TIFA: What is the goal for the scheduling of hot meals in the areas on prolonged lockdown status?
Martinez: We intend to provide those on a rotating basis. Sometimes staffing is an issue. We are trying to do that as often as possible.
TIFA: Have the units in the Panhandle been issued blankets since they have the cold and snow arriving up there?
Martinez: We do expect those to be distributed according to temperature guidelines. I will check with Regional Director Blackwell to see if that has been done.
Tx CURE: IT systems have said they will be able to offer video visitation for international families. Will that also apply to phone calls from international callers?
J. Clark: They will have access to video visitation. We are still talking about whether they will be able to make regular phone calls. No decision has been made.
Tx CURE: Are you still using the Vital Oxide or has that been stopped? Some officers have told inmates “they aren’t doing that anymore.”
J. Clark: It is being used in all regions; some units have to rotate the use of the sprayers.
Billy Hirsch, Director of Manufacturing, Agri-business, and Logistics: All the units have supplies of Vital Oxide and more is coming. The product is not used daily; 3 to 5 days is an adequate timeline. Again, the sprayer devices are having to be rotated to share for most units. If a unit gets out of sync with their turn with the sprayer they might go back to bleach solutions for a few days. Send specifics of units where there are problems.
Tx CURE: So there are only sprayers for 89 units?
Hirsch: We do need more sprayers, but we are in competition with hospitals and other institutions who are also ordering them.
TCJC: The Crain Unit has high numbers of positive cases and is not using Vital Oxide.
(Jason Clark reported back later in the call that Vital Oxide had been used at Crain yesterday, and that they have their own sprayer there.)
TCJC: Have you noted an increase in suicides on the women’s units?
J. Clark: We have no recent female suicides.
TCJC: Is there a change in the distribution of feminine hygiene items? An increase was mandated by the last legislature.
J. Clark: There should be no interruption in the distribution of those items. Send details if there are issues.
TCJC: Are there any new pre-natal intervention programs for inmates?
J. Clark and Chris Carter, Director of Rehabilitation Programs: There is nothing new. Ongoing programs include peer education programs on parenting.
TCJC: Is that available to all women, at every facility?
Carter: Yes, through peer education.
Prison Show: We still have a lot of complaints about food…I will email specifics…and about medical care…instances of people being refused treatment because their issues are not Covid related. I will email specifics.
J. Clark: Mr. Hirsch, could we have an update on the status of the tray lids for delivering hot meals?
Hirsch: 42 units have enough tray lids to use for hot meals. 3 more will be added this week, and 19 more soon. Our priority is for units that are locked down, as we receive that status report from CID.
FAITH: We have telephone issues: These units are reporting as few as one working telephone per wing. Estelle, Hughes, LeBlanc, and Coffield. How long after a request for service is sent should we expect repairs to be made?
T. Clark: I was not aware of phone problems on those units. I will check. How long repairs take may depend on the lockdown status of the area or other challenges.
TCJC: Please add Lane Murray to that list. They are basically down to one phone for the entire unit.
Epicenter: Polunsky also has phone issues. Calls frequently go blank after five minutes. This problem gets better for a time and then recurs.
(T. Clark reported back later in the call: I do find an open ticket for Polunsky phones; that is the only repair request I find at this time.)
FAITH: Should inmates have fresh uniforms daily or only Monday through Friday? Over the holiday weekend, some men reported there were still wearing on Tuesday of this week the same uniforms they were given last Friday.
Martinez: Clothing exchange calls for fresh clothing daily. Please send specific units to be checked.
TPAA: Can we add some items like Vitamin C and fish oil to the commissary so inmates can build their immune systems?
Eric Johnston, TDCJ Director of Commissary Services: We are working with our vendors to increase our supplies of these items. We are in competition with many others during a time of shortages. We will stock our stores as soon as we have supplies in the warehouse.
TPAA: Grievances are not being picked up at the Lewis Unit, and on K Pod only kitchen workers are being allowed 30-minute phone calls; others are limited to 15-minute calls. Is it possible for phone call times to be set to different lengths in different areas of a unit?
T. Clark: Yes, different areas can be set up differently, depending on lockdown restrictions needed. Different times would have to do with living areas, not jobs.
Turner: I will check on grievances at the Lewis Unit.
TPAA: LeBlanc Unit reports no outside rec is being allowed. Will that come soon? Some areas of Wynne and LeBlanc report not being allowed either outside rec or dayroom time.
Martinez: We have had no reports of staff not allowing that. I will check.
TPAA: From the Pack Unit, families are saying Ecomm was open briefly, then closed again. Was there some sort of error?
Johnston: As we rolled out the deposit validation process, a file was transferred to the wrong place. As a result, about 140-150 ecomms were ordered that should not have been allowed….for persons in restricted housing or on lockdown status. Ordinarily, when an ecomm is not deliverable, for whatever reason, after 30 days the money goes to the inmate’s trust fund. Our site actually says refunds will not be made. However, we caught the problem when a family requested a refund, and since it was because of our error that they were able to make the order in the first place when it should not have been allowed, we are working on the issue. If Pack comes up from lockdown before 30 days has passed, we will try to deliver those ecomms.
Tx Connected: Will you check into the report of breakfast johnnies at Hughes which contained spoiled pork?
J. Clark: We will check.
Tx Conn: I sent an email to Mr. Hinojosa, of Parole Division, regarding a specific inmate and have not received a reply.
Rene Hinojosa, Director of Parole Services: I did respond to a few emails this morning. Please resend your item if you have not received something from me.
Call adjourned by Jason Clark at 10:35 a.m.
Notes of Conference Call September 2, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of the call by Becky Haigler. Some questions and responses from the call have been moved out of chronological order in this summary, in part to place items nearer to related items.
Call convened at 10:02 a.m. by Mr. Marvin Dunbar, TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management with a roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, The Prison Show, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, Texas Connected…Tx Conn, and FAITH
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director, Jennifer Erschabek; TIFA Ch L indicates a TIFA Chapter Leader)
Many agency departmental directors or their deputies or staff were on the call to make reports and/or answer questions.
Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director chaired the call. He introduced Ms. Tina Clark, previously the deputy and now the new Director of the Information and Technology Division. He reported that there was no significant impact to TDCJ facilities in the storms and hurricanes last week. We are encouraged to continue to monitor the TDCJ website for Covid numbers. Testing continues in areas of concern. In response to questions about the possibility of video visitation for international callers, TDCJ is working with Securus; there will be a process to get international callers documented for approval for video visitation. (In response to a question by TPAA later in the call, Mr. Mendoza noted that Securus currently uses passports to verify users and that is likely what TDCJ will use as well.)
TIFA: Has power been restored to all units in the Beaumont area?
Cody Ginsell, Director of Facilities Management: Yes, power has been restored. There have been some issues with the Orange County parole office. There are still rolling “brownouts” in eastern parts of the state. We usually have good notice of those. There were 7 of 8 transmission lines down at one point.
TIFA: Some families have reported issues with the quality of the sound for video visitation…poor connection, static. What is the process to address that issue?
Mendoza: We have not heard of that. Maybe let Wardens know so they can see if it can be addressed on their end.
T. Clark: That has not been reported to us. Maybe call the Securus technical helpline.
TIFA: I believe at least one family did call Securus and was told it was on the TDCJ side.
TIFA: Is there a possibility of increasing the frequency of video visitations for the hospice area? We have a particular mom who may not have much time left with her loved one.
Mendoza: We are not making any promises to increase the frequency in any area at this time. We are focused on getting the process up and running. That could be a possibility in the future.
TIFA: What is the general outlook for expanding video visitation?
Mendoza: We want to solidify what we have before adding more. Again, we want to be sure there will be sustainability. We know you may be tired of hearing that but it is very important. Our long-term goal is to have video visitation system-wide. We want to be sure we have a good quality product.
TIFA: Please reassure families again that TDCJ does not plan to replace in-person visitation with video visitation.
Mendoza: Video visitation is not a replacement for but an addition to traditional visitation.
TIFA: Someone reported seeing on a TDCJ Facebook page that some limited, non-contact visitation might resume in December.
Mendoza: No, that is not true.
TIFA: We are all very conscious of the horrendous heat right now? Are temperatures being monitored in cool-bed cells?
Mendoza: Yes, those units are monitored.
TIFA: We have reports of some officers spraying PEOPLE with the Vital Oxide. The specs for that product say that it is an eye irritant.
Mendoza: To follow up specifically we need a unit name.
TIFA: We still have a lot of units on medical lockdown. We have heard about the tray lids and efforts to provide hot meals. How often are hot meals expected to be served? Some units are only getting those once every-other week.
Bobby Lumpkin, Director of CID: We have not set a number for expected hot meals. There are various challenges on different units. We will check to see the frequency. We would like to do that as much as possible.
TIFA: We continue to hear that units shape up when the compliance teams are expected, but after the team visits things go back to the way they were before the visit. What are the expected consequences for an officer not wearing a mask?
Lumpkin: The unit administration attempts to resolve that issue on a case-by-case basis. Consequences would escalate for repeated offenses.
TIFA: We have reports of inmates being written major cases for “disobeying an order” when they tell officers to put on a mask.
TIFA: What is your positivity rate in the ongoing mass testing?
Mendoza: Those numbers are not at hand. I can get them for you.
Texas CURE: We still have a lot of complaints about I-60s for medical being returned with only sticker responses; being told that only dire emergencies will be seen; routine treatment is being denied.
Myra Walker, TDCJ Director of Nursing Services: I need specifics to look at particular situations. I am keeping a file of these reports to see if there are patterns.
Texas CURE: Some are writing grievances because of being denied access to medical. One inmate asked an officer WHY he was being denied and was told, “Because you’re breathing.”
Mendoza: Also let the warden know of officers giving inappropriate responses.
Texas CURE: There always seems to be a difference between the responses from medical and what security personnel do.
Texas CURE: We have reports from a unit where social distancing is not being practiced in the dayroom.
Lumpkin: Send the unit name.
Texas CURE: We have complaints from men in Ad Seg areas, who are supposed to have one hour of outdoor rec, being left outside for up to three hours, then being told that because they chose rec they forfeited their opportunity to make a call. I’ll send the unit names.
Prison Show: We have many reports of officers without nametags, presumable so they cannot be reported or grieved. We have also heard of the Vital Oxide being sprayed on people. How many employees are currently lacking in TDCJ?
Mendoza: We are lacking about 5100 COs and still have about 1000 employees from various areas restricted because of Covid.
Prison Show: As of August 13, the Connally Unit had still not had the hot meals for units on lockdown. Can that be remedied? Hot meals for the other units is still very sporadic. How long will it be to get those 1200 lids being produced daily out to the units?
Lumpkin: I will check on Connally. We are working with Mr. Hirsch on the manufacturing and distribution of those lids.
Billy Hirsch, Director of Manufacturing, AgriBusiness, and Logistics: 41 units have the lids. More will be delivered this week.
Prison Show: Some inmates are being written up for lowering their masks while trying to get the voice recognition system on the phones to work. What is the current policy on masks for inmates and staff?
Mendoza: There has been no change of policy on masks. They are required for staff and for inmates.
Lumpkin: I was on three units this week. I observed inmates lowering masks to get on the phones, then replacing them to talk. Officers were observing. I saw a few officers who did not have their mask over their nose but most are compliant.
FAITH: We have also had complaints about the voice recognition system not working for those wearing masks and of COs writing cases for inmates who lower the mask to try to get phone access. Do they need to ask for new tapes to be made for voice recognition with a mask? Or could COs be instructed to work with the inmates on this issue?
Lumpkin: Let us know units where this is a problem. I have seen it working as it should.
FAITH: I will send a list.
Prison Show: The new requirement to allow money to be sent to inmates only from people on their phone or visitation list went into effect yesterday. Will the inmate be written up if someone who is not on his list tries to deposit money?
Lumpkin: The Inspect to Protect protocols, including limitations on who can deposit money, were announced at the January PACT conference by Ms. Lorie Davis. That limitation was delayed during the Covid crisis but did go into effect yesterday, September 1.
Eric Johnston, Director of Commissary Services: There is front-end control on that. If someone is not on the approved list they will not be able to deposit money or purchase items. There would be no disciplinary action at the unit level.
FAITH: The phones on the Vance Unit are out…the OTS system on the entire unit…since last Thursday or Friday. When will they be up again? The warden has allowed some 5-minute calls from his office. He says the system will be out for a long time. (Later in the call, Mr. Mendoza said they had received a report that the Vance phone problem was an ATT outage, out of TDCJ control.)
TPAA: Garza West is listed as one of the 12 units for video visitation. When will that start there?
T. Clark: We are working on that.
TPAA: How is the pilot program for tablet visitation going?
T. Clark: We received our server today. We are configuring the system, setting up infrastructure. We are probably about 10 days to two weeks out.
TPAA: At Polunsky the johnnies are still inadequate and they are receiving no drinks with the meals. On units that are being able to go to chow they have less time to eat and so are still not getting enough food.
TPAA: At Hughes Unit people are still having trouble getting meds that they have to go to the pill window for, those that cannot be KoP.
Walker: I will check.
TPAA: How often and in what areas is the Vital Oxide being used?
Lumpkin: We have a target of spraying every three days in the housing and common areas.
TPAA: Is that for all facilities?
Lumpkin: Our goal is to cover all facilities. We have the product on all facilities but have to rotate the sprayers. We are using it most on the units where Covid is more prevalent.
TPAA: As units come off lockdown some are having problems with commissary, not being allowed a full spend.
Johnston: What units?
TPAA: Hughes and Estelle; will send other units. We also have names of some officers who are making commissary difficult.
TPAA: Eastham is being told they can only shower every three days.
Lumpkin: I will check.
Ginsell: There was a well pump out on that unit for 12 hours and they were conserving water, but that would not get to three days.
TPAA: On K Pod of Briscoe Unit grievances are not being picked up.
TPAA: On September 1, JPay sent an email to their users about the restrictions on putting money on an inmate’s books, but said you had to be on the visitation list. They did not mention that being on the phone list would also be allowed.
Johnston: I will reach out to them. They have the correct lists to use.
TIFA Ch L: Coffield is not on medical lockdown now, so they have resumed cubicle shakedowns. COs are inspecting inmate property without gloves and without sanitizing or handwashing between cells. When asked, one CO said he had not been provided gloves for that job. I will send the name of the officer in an incident there on August 31, inspecting inmate property without PPE.
Other groups on the call said they would send any questions in email.
The call was adjourned by Mr. Mendoza at 10:42 a.m.
Notes of Conference Call August 26, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler.
Call convened at 10:00 a.m. by Mr. Marvin Dunbar, TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management with a roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, The Prison Show, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, Texas Connected…Tx Conn, and FAITH.
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director, Jennifer Erschabek.)
Several agency departmental directors or their deputies or staff were on the call to make reports and/or answer questions.
Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director chaired the call. He requested that we keep the call short today, and limit questions to those related specifically to hurricane issues. The agency is very involved right now with storm preparations. There are several command centers running and people need to get back to those jobs. We can hope to get back to questions about visitation and other issues next week. He did announce the appointment of Mr. Billy Hirsch, formerly part of the CID division, to Director of Manufacturing, Agribusiness, and Logistics…MAL. Some division directors will give updates directly related to storm issues.
Mr. Bobby Lumpkin, Director of CID: In preparation for landfall by Hurricane Laura we have evacuated some units in the path of the storm, units at which we might anticipate problems. A total of 3630 inmates have been evacuated from LeBlanc and Gist units, some of the Carol Young medical facility, all of Goodman, some of Stiles, and the BAMBI program in north Houston. N95 face masks have been provided to all staff and inmates to use during evacuation. Buses are sanitized after every trip. The evacuees have been dispersed to units in Regions 1, 2, and 6. There are teams active on the receiving units to oversee the process. The receiving units are locked down during this time but Offender Telephone Service…OTS…has continued for inmates on the receiving units who are approved for that. Evacuees do not have phone access at this time. We expect the evacuation to be a short-term event. We would only adjust phone access for them if the evacuation proved to be a long-term event. Our priority is to get them out of harm’s way and settled.
Mr. Cody Ginsell, Director of Facilities Management: As we would do in preparation for any storm, we have secured outside equipment. We have topped off our generators and brought in additional fuel in case those generators are needed. We have brought in water in tankers. We have extra generators ready to use at units which do not usually keep generators on hand. We have extra staff on affected units to deal with any issues of maintenance.
Mr. Rene Hinojosa, Director of Parole Services: We are also working on evacuation of clients in halfway houses and treatment centers in the storm area. We are tracking storm progress in these counties: Hardin, Jasper, Jefferson, Newton, Orange; and in Galveston, Beaumont, and the Bolivar Peninsula. Some clients have gone to Jester 1. Some have been furloughed from Abundance Living Center and Cheyenne Center. Our hotline is activated, the number is on the website.
April Zamora, Director of Re-entry Services: Releases are continuing. Our hotline at 1-877-887-6151 will be open beginning tomorrow, 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. for questions. We are working with our clients who are having to evacuate, especially those with mental health and medical needs.
Mendoza: We are following the weather, making plans, working to keep people safe. We appreciate you keeping questions weather-related today. Send other concerns in email to Mr. Dunbar. He will distribute them to appropriate divisions for response.
TIFA: We have some compliments. The evacuation of Jester 1 was handled well. Warden Armstrong at Darrington is doing a good job of relieving families’ anxieties.
TIFA: We would like to know 1. HOW inmates are being separated for Covid issues on the receiving units; and 2. How are you tracking officers going back and forth between the two populations now housed at Eastham, were there are a lot of positive Covid cases?
Mendoza: We are not compromising our Covid protocols, but we are working on getting everyone to safety. Let us know if you have specific concerns in those areas. We are using masks, disinfecting, distancing as possible, but removing people to safety is the main concern right now.
TIFA: Will you overly emphasize the importance of wearing masks during this process?
Mendoza: Yes, we can do that.
Prison Show: I’m particularly concerned about the units at Livingston. I lived there through a time of 8 hours of winds over 100 mph, with a hurricane with the same projected path as Hurricane Laura. I’m surprised your plans have not included those units.
Mendoza: We are coordinating with state agencies about the areas of greatest need. We are planning the best we can.
Lumpkin: As with any storm we are monitoring the track and wind speeds; we get ongoing updates from NOAA. At the Gib Lewis Unit, we are moving the outside dorms into the brick buildings. We are also prepared to move outside housing at Polunsky and other units to inside areas as needed.
TPAA: What can you do to ensure that those being evacuated do not miss meals? We have reports of some who went as long as 14 hours without a meal during evacuation.
Lumpkin: Evacuees were fed a breakfast sack meal before boarding buses. Some at the end of the process may have been missed. After the storm, as we return people to their units, we will also feed them before boarding buses.
TPAA: So, the receiving units will be on lockdown while evacuees are there?
Lumpkin: Yes, they are locked down now.
TPAA: At Gib Lewis the evacuees in the gym have only one toilet available. Will you be bringing others?
Ginsell: Yes, we are using portable toilets.
TPAA: I sent a list of questions to Mr. Lumpkin on August 12 and still have received no responses.
Lumpkin: We are working on those responses. The storm has delayed everything.
Other groups on the call reported no weather-related questions.
Mr. Mendoza adjourned the call at 10:23, thanking advocacy groups for their patience, hoping to be back on track with other concerns on next week’s call.
Notes of Conference Call August 19, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler and Jennifer Erschabek. Some questions and responses from the call may have been moved out of chronological order in this summary, in part to place items nearer to related items.
Call convened at 10:05 a.m. by Mr. Marvin Dunbar, TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management with a roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, The Prison Show, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, Texas Voices, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, Texas Connected…Tx Conn, FAITH, and Epicenter.
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director, Jennifer Erschabek.)
Many agency departmental directors or their deputies or staff were on the call to make reports and/or answer questions.
Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff chaired the call and gave agency updates. Families are encouraged to use the TDCJ website for Covid-19 statistics. TDCJ is on calls daily with other state agencies and hears that the virus numbers are stabilizing. Numbers of positive cases and numbers hospitalized for the virus continue to decrease. TDCJ numbers also continue to improve. We are not out of the woods but we are moving in the right direction.
Video Visitation is a big item right now. You know that this past Monday we were able to start video visits on 11 sites. Monday there were 106 visits; Tuesday 75; and today there are 99 visits scheduled. There were few hiccups. We sat in on a few of those visits and were hearing positive responses from inmates and from families. We have a ways to go but we will continue to find ways to help families stay connected since there will be no regular visits anytime soon.
We also got our first 26 tablets, for the second part of a video visitation plan. Over the next couple of weeks we will be setting up the infrastructure associated with the use of those tablets and training staff at five Huntsville area units in the use of the hand-held tablets. TDCJ has not selected which units will be receiving the tablets, it will be based on internet connectivity for the tablets.
Updates from some departmental directors.
Kristina Hartman, Superintendent, Windham School District: Our board met on Friday. We received approval for a large purchase of computer software for our academic programs. Our 84 computer labs will be upgraded with this new software. We received approval to begin using materials from the Matthew Gaines High School program, a standard HS program for adult education. We will be piloting this program for some of our younger students.
We spoke last time about our family literacy program; we are hiring for some positions related to that now and hope to have it going in September. We continue to work on equity and inclusion of educational opportunities for inmates in restricted housing areas. We are looking for appropriate ways to serve them.
On our social media accounts…Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram…we are having What About Windham? Wednesdays. There are information sessions, opportunities to meet staff and learn about Windham services.
In September we will begin some classes in Principles of Information Technology on some women’s units. This is an introduction to coding and information technology. We are doing serious upgrades to the technology in our classrooms.
Ron Hudson, Deputy Director of Manufacturing, AgriBusiness and Logistics: We know food is a hot topic right now. We continue to make more trays and tray lids to help with the delivery of hot meals to inmates. By next week there should be 31 units with the tray lids. Over about 3 weeks we have manufactured @ 15,000 trays and @ 20,000 tray lids. More are coming.
We continue to use the vital oxide sanitizing spray. About a month ago we received our first sprayer and 225 vials of the fluid from the Texas Department of Emergency Management. Vital oxide is a chemical compound being used in nursing homes, schools, cafeterias, gyms…which kills the Covid virus. TDCJ now has 80 of the sprayers, distributed across the state and being rotated through the units. The electrostatic sprayers can cover 8000 square feet in a short time.
Tx CURE: We have a report from a unit where the vital oxide spray is being used consistently and we are glad for that. But staff is telling inmates that the product is effective for seven days
Clark: The product does have extended effectiveness….not like a bleach solution.
Cody Ginsell, TDCJ Director of Facilities Management: When the vital oxide is sprayed on a surface it remains effective for 5 to 7 days. You should not go back and wipe down that surface. That would remove the product.
TIFA: We have heard that the Roach Unit is having a semi-annual lockdown. Previously it had been stated that there would not be semi-annual lockdowns during the Covid crisis, while units are subject to be locked down for medical reasons.
Clark: The Roach Unit has had no, or at least almost no, cases of Covid. If there are no cases on a unit, and if CID and other TDCJ leadership determine that a search is needed on that unit, we would make sure that safety is not compromised while a lockdown-type search was conducted.
TIFA: At Ramsey there were inmates returned from Hospital Galveston to general population, who later tested positive. What are the logistics of inmates returning to their unit from the hospital?
John Werner, TDCJ Deputy Director of CID: They are quarantined when returning from a free-world hospital but not always when returning from Hospital Galveston.
Dunbar: TIFA, you had some questions about video visitation.
TIFA: Yes, we do have questions. Some of them have been addressed on the Facebook pages but we want to repeat them here so the answers will be included in the notes.
Dunbar: Let’s just take them in the order you sent them.
TIFA: Yes, we would appreciate getting this information into the call notes. (TDCJ answers to these questions came from Jason Clark, John Werner, and Marvin Dunbar)
- Do you have to be on the phone list or visitation list in order to register? You have to be on the visitation list as well as register with Securus.
- Can an inmate refuse a visit and still have a visit with a family member after the refusal? We know that an inmate is allowed only one video visit per month. Would a refusal of one visit keep him from having a visit by another person? TDCJ would like for friends and family members to get together and decide about the visits. And when an inmate gets a notice about a visit, TDCJ would like the inmate to let TDCJ know in a timely manner to cancel the visit. And, a reminder, it will take24 to 48 hours notice to schedule a visit.
- How many people can be on the visit? You can just do one at a time so that they can verify who that person is. Can children be on the visit and how many? TDCJ is going to use the current policy that relates to children at visits, including any restrictions an inmate might have about visiting children.
- Will international visits be allowed? They are continuing to look at that policy. For now, with OTS, international calls are not allowed. They are looking at allowing for video visitation; that is something that is under consideration. Hopefully there will be an update by next week.
- How will an inmate know what time to be available? The inmate will have a lay-in or there will be a special roster for visits. The inmate will know when they have been scheduled and that way they can have them pulled out and in their seat, waiting for the visit to start.
- How many video monitors are at each unit? 10 on each site.
- How do you see the once-a-month visits expanding in the future? That is still open for discussion.
- What about AdSeg and G5 inmates and video visitation? Right now restricted housing inmates are not going to visitation but some G5 inmates are visiting. But remember the infrastructure on the facilities will determine whether these people have access to the video visitation equipment.
- What about attorney visits? At this time, TDCJ is not doing video visitation for attorneys, only phone calls.
- Do we have a list of the five units gearing up for tablet visitation in Huntsville? They are currently building the infrastructure for the tablets and they have to consider the cellular coverage so they will have to go out to each unit and check the units in the Walker county area.
TIFA: We have asked before about frozen water bottles as a heat mitigation effort. We are asking that you reconsider that…especially in those areas where there is no respite available because of medical lockdown.
Clark: We felt there were some over-arching security concerns. Bring other ideas if you have them.
TIFA: We question whether a precious bottle of cold water would actually be a security issue, since it is something so much needed. And we all know there are many other items already on the units which are security issues.
Tx CURE: We have units reporting that staff are only using masks when the compliance teams are present. Would it possible to visit areas without notice?
Ginsell: The teams do tell the wardens what days they are coming. Once on the units they visit different areas and different shifts unannounced. They review film from various areas and times and make corrections as needed.
Tx CURE: It’s good to know that they are viewing film. We have notations of times and areas and camera numbers where non-compliance is happening.
TPAA: We also have reports of officers not using PPE or doing sanitizing. Also, some officers are telling inmates they didn’t know they were working in a restricted area. How would an officer know about that?
Werner: Shift briefings will indicate which areas of a unit are medically restricted.
Dunbar: There are risk managers on each unit monitoring the Covid protocols.
TPAA: Some units are reporting they are being denied the multi-plugs for fan use. Are they not available on commissary?
Werner: That’s the first I’ve heard about that issue. Please send details.
TPAA: Goodman Unit reports no poster is up about respite protocols and when inmates have asked they are being denied.
TPAA: I’d like to follow up on a question from last week…about the positive cases in one-man cells…do you have any more information about that?
Myra Walker, TDCJ Director of Nursing: I have had a discussion with Mr. Mendoza. We have no definitive answer. I will have some response for you by the end of the day.
TPAA: Are the daily temperature checks for positive cases supposed to be once daily or twice daily?
Walker: For those that are asymptomatic we have gone to once a day. Let me know of problems on any particular unit.
TPAA: At Estelle, inmates say staff comes into an area and checks five or six people and reports that all the others have refused to be checked.
TPAA: Is there a maximum time a person can be confined to a cell? Some of the units have been on precautionary lockdown for many weeks. Some of those inmates are getting out of their cell for phone calls, but if a person has no one to call they are getting almost no time out of cell. Also, the units on lockdown…some are getting 15-minute calls, some get 30-minute calls; some are getting dayroom time, some are not; some get calls but no dayroom time; some get dayroom time but not full calls. It is very confusing. Could we have some consistency?
Werner: You can send specifics of areas with problems. The issues could have to do with social distancing measures in individual areas. Covid protocols take precedence over everything else.
TPAA: I have a lot of other unit-specific questions I can email, but I’m still waiting for answers to the questions I sent after last week’s call. Who should I send questions to?
Dunbar:You can send them to me.
TIFA: Is it possible the number of positive cases is going down because not as much testing is going on? We know that TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier testified in a recent meeting that 75% of the positive cases are asymptomatic but it is important to track those cases to keep up with the spread of the disease.
Clark: We are continuing with general testing in TDCJ. Certainly we are testing those with symptoms and we are constantly consulting with infection control experts and our medical teams about how to proceed. When we see more symptomatic cases popping up we do increase testing of asymptomatic persons in that area.
TIFA: On the TDCJ website Covid dashboard, the number of inmates tested is not the same as the number of test results received, is that right?
Clark: That is correct.
TIFA: Can we have an update on the McConnell and Connally units that I asked about last week? I sent questions to Mr. Lumpkin as asked.
Clark:We will try to track that down and get you some information.
FAITH: We understand that Securus has the ability to allow people to call from other countries. We hope you will make it possible for those families and loved one to call.
Clark: We will consider.
Epicenter: We hear that for the McConnell unit there is a goal of serving at least one hot meal daily.
Werner: Yes, we are trying to expand food service beyond johnnies. You heard about the tray covers. We are piloting some “MRE”s…shelf-stable items. Part of the challenge is workforce limitations.
Epicenter: They are not getting any fiber…not even any prunes in the johnnies now. And they are often getting less than 1000 calories per day…not to mention the poor nutritional quality of those calories. We know that you are very short-staffed there. We heard that Huntsville has been visiting that unit. We hope improvement is coming.
Epicenter: We have a report of a staph infection circulating at Coffield Unit…on top of their Covid issues…and that some with staph are being sent to work in metal fabrication. On the other hand, the food at Coffield has been pretty good, including some fresh fruit.
Walker: Please send any details of a staph infection to me.
Other advocacy groups on the call reported no questions this week, questions already addressed, or unit specific questions to be sent in email.
Notes of Conference Call August 12, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler. Some questions and responses from the call have been moved out of chronological order in this summary, in part to place items nearer to related items.
Call convened at 10:02 a.m. by Mr. Marvin Dunbar, TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management with a roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, The Prison Show, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, Texas Voices, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, Texas Connected…Tx Conn, and FAITH
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director, Jennifer Erschabek; TIFA Ch L indicates a TIFA Chapter Leader)
Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director chaired the call. Agency updates were given by Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff: .In the civilian community statewide, the numbers regarding Covid-19 look promising. There is a decrease in the 7-day average of new positive cases of the virus, and a decrease in the numbers of hospitalizations, so it seems clear that mitigation efforts are working. TDCJ numbers are about 2 weeks behind those statewide numbers, but we also see positive movement. I remind you that the situation remains fluid and could change.
Mendoza: We have two agency announcements. As we told you last week, Ms. Lorie Davis is retiring at the end of this month as Director of CID. She is wrapping up affairs in her office. Mr. Bobby Lumpkin, formerly Director of Manufacturing, Agribusiness, and Logistics, is taking her place. The two are working together for the rest of this month in transition. We have had another vacancy filled in private facilities monitoring. Ms. Allison Dunbar, the Deputy Director, has been filling the Director’s spot in interim and has been chosen to become the head of that department.
Bobby Lumpkin, TDCJ Director of Correctional Institutions Division (CID): I am looking forward to serving the agency, the CID staff, and inmates of TDCJ. Some of you have sent emails and I am still working through those to respond.
Allison Dunbar, Director of Private Facilities Monitoring: Thanks for your support. I look forward to working with you.
Mendoza: I have had a lot of interaction with many of you, in emails and by phone this week. I appreciate the opportunity to do that. The biggest issues for families continue to be phones, visitation, meals, and re-entry.
We are making progress, one step at a time. The agency has purchased 26 tablets, expected to arrive by Friday. One will be for use at headquarters and 25 distributed to five units here in the Huntsville area as we pilot a video visitation program. We are doing that close to home so that we have good IT support for any problems that come up with the initiation of video visitation. This is new territory. We know that technology can be great but it also frequently has hiccups. We don’t want to blast a program out system-wide and try to deal with problems on a large scale. When we feel we have the kinks worked out in a test area we will order some more tablets and include more units. We are taking a small bite, as it were, and trying to digest that before moving on. We want to have a program we can sustain in the long run. We hope to open registration to participate in video visitation by the end of the month. We want to set up a practical process. Our communication department is working on the information and announcements that will go out. We will present that on social media and on these conference calls as soon as possible.
We have ordered about 50 cordless phones for use in restricted housing areas. We are also piloting these close to headquarters so we have adequate support if we run into technical or infrastructure problems.
We continue to produce tray lids so that we can do “door dash delivery” of hot meals on some units. We have also created some MRE-type meals in-house as alternatives to johnnies, but johnnies are still being used. As we look at these food delivery options, we have to make sure not to impede existing safety protocols. We are still 5000 COs short, and so johnnies will still be part of the plan.
We continue with re-entry efforts, and also are doing some small, strategic batches of intakes.
April Zamora, Director of Re-entry Services: Since March we have released about 21,000 inmates. We are proud of our re-entry case managers, wardens, and families co-operating in release efforts. In interviews with families about community situations, especially job opportunities, we are getting good information to send back to unit case managers. Many employers are still hiring during Covid-19. There are jobs available for those releasing. We know there are frustrations, there has been some negative cross-talk, but we are helping prepare families and inmates being released.
Our re-entry hotline…1-877-887-6151…has release information for families and we are also calling families with release details. There is no requirement that families have to be ready to pick up their loved one at 8:00 a.m. Tell us about your logistics, your trip information, and we will work with you on a release time. You do need to call the morning of release to make sure nothing has changed at the last minute to prevent release. That hotline is answered only by case managers, the deputy director or director of re-entry, who are able to give timely and accurate information.
Mendoza: We told you last week that after opening phone lines from 6:00 a.m. to midnight @56,000 calls to friends and family were completed. This week that number increased to 78,000. We are glad to see that better phone access means more communication with families is happening.
TIFA: Thank you for the reports and encouraging information. Congratulations to Mr. Lumpkin and Ms. Dunbar on their new positions. A question about the new tablets and video visitation program. Will there be a cost to families?
Tina Clark, Deputy Director of TDCJ Information Technology Division: The program being piloted with TDCJ tablets and the video visitation will have no cost at this time. A more permanent set-up with Century Link is still in negotiations but will be free for the first 90 days and $10 afterwards.
TIFA: So these TDCJ tablets will be only for video visitation and not for reading, educational or entertainment at this time.
Mendoza: That is correct. We are focusing on video visitation for family connections. The other tablets and applications are on the table; they are to be considered, but not at this time.
TPAA: As the tablets are rolled out for wider use, will they be purchased by families or supplied by TDCJ?
Mendoza: They will be owned by TDCJ and used only for video visitation. Visitation will be scheduled and will use agency-owned tablets.
TIFA: Will overseas or long-distance users have access ‘to video visitation’ since the tablets will be using the internet? We have lots of long-distance and overseas members.
T. Clark and Mendoza: We have not discussed that issue. We will look at it.
FAITH: We have done some research regarding international calls we are glad to share with those looking at this.
TIFA: Is Covid affecting phone services such as phone repairs and addition of new phones and phone lines?
Mendoza: Yes…our partners are affected by Covid issues, which affects us. Some repairs are falling behind.
TIFA: The heat is really bad right now. Some area of 105 degrees are projected for the next few days. What additional heat mitigation plans do you have? We are hearing from many units that cold water is not available; that respite is being denied for reasons of social distancing. Have you thought any more about the idea of distributing frozen water bottles?
Mendoza: Share the areas where problems are being reported. Our standard annual heat mitigation protocols are in place…cold water, cold showers, respite areas. No changes are being planned at this time. We encourage your calls about failures of these efforts on the units, whether part of CID or in the private facilities. We don’t have any new ideas but are open to them. I recently had a conversation with a family member about making the chill towels available to more inmates. We are researching how that might happen.
TIFA: We are aware of the TDCJ heat mitigation protocols but wanted to be sure that gets in the notes which are distributed. Readers of the notes are encouraged to contact TDCJ and TIFA with issues about heat mitigation and also of officers not wearing masks or name tags. (If inmates want to write TIFA re: officers not wearing masks or name tags please send specific information AND officer’s names and building locations to TIFA c/o The Law Office of Robyn Harlin 4001 N Shepherd Dr #200, Houston, TX 77018. Mark as Legal Mail. Do not send legal requests or grievance forms).
TIFA Ch L: Could we get a response to that mention of frozen water bottles to help with heat mitigation? Is it at least being researched?
Lumpkin: We have looked at that. There are some operational challenges. It would create a lot of waste to be dealt with. And a frozen bottle of water could become a weapon. We are looking some other ideas. We are testing some of the backpack water dispensers now and will update you on that.
TIFA: We have heard the the trustee camp at Stringfellow is being converted as a program unit. What type of programs will be there?
John Werner, Deputy Director of CID: Yes, those will be SAFP and substance abuse programs.
TIFA: Coffield has been allowing inmates to take bowls to the chow hall and return to their housing area to eat. That seems like a good plan for using social distancing but getting hot meals. However, because Coffield and Connally have been hard-hit by Covid and are also extremely understaffed, there are many, many complaints about bad conditions on those units…bad food, little phone access, limited used of PPE, etc.
Lumpkin: Please send a list of the issues you find there to me and to Mr. Dunbar. Staff shortages are a challenge but we will check on those units.
TIFA Ch L: Are the programs that were being offered by distance learning during Covid lockdowns continuing?
Tx CURE: We are sending many unit-specific questions in email. Can you expand on the possible video visitation costs?
Mendoza: That is still in negotiation so we will not comment at this time.
Tx CURE: The cordless phones mentioned were for AdSeg and restricted housing areas?
Mendoza: Yes, areas where there is no OTS.
Tx CURE: We have reports from a couple of units where inmates on medical restriction are supposed to do twice-daily temperature checks and officers are having inmates pass around the thermometer. Shouldn’t that be done by a staff person holding the infra-red thermometer so that there is no person-to-person contact?
Mendoza: That is not an acceptable procedure. Let us know where that is happening.
Tx CURE: There is some confusion for families about parole interviews. We know that the in-person IPO parole interviews are not happening. Families are getting a “10-day notice” form and assuming it means they have only 10 days to get all their letters and documents turned in. I believe they still have 30 days after that notice, but it is not clear and some are panicking.
Rene Hinojosa, Director of Parole Services: The IPOs are under the Board of Pardons and Parole, Mr. Tim McDonald. Email some details and we will clarify.
Tx CURE: Thanks to the directors who are on these calls to answer questions. Congratulations to Mr. Lumpkin and Ms. Dunbar.
Prison Show: We have some questions about re-entry. Can they provide IDs for those being released, since the DPS offices are still shut down? How many of the 21,000 released since March are now employed? How many have had their release delayed because of Covid?
Zamora: We are still actively ordering IDs and birth certificates for those releasing. There have been some delays, especially with Social Security cards. There has been no significant drop in the number of persons being released who have those documents upon release. The daily average for those releasing with IDs is 87%. For those who do not have those documents on release, outside case managers continue to work with them. The DPS offices do have delays but they are working with us. We also have employers who are willing to let people start with only their TDCJ ID and a letter from the agency. For your questions about numbers, please email me so I can get you accurate information on those numbers. We are adding new employers to our work website. The number is up to about 500 now. 113 people were hired through that website just last week.
Prison Show: You know that the actual state-issued ID is a very important document for those being released to have.
Zamora: Yes. Again the daily average of those who have the state-issued ID by their release date is 86%. Yesterday it was 90% of those being released.
FAITH: Congratulations to Mr. Lumpkin and Ms. Dunbar. Some of the parole offices have been pressing released inviduals to update their state-issued IDs to a current address immediately on release. How can they handle this while DPS offices are closed?
Hinojosa: If specific offices are requesting something that is unattainable, please let us know. There is no mandate from our office for that.
FAITH: The need for disposition of inmate property to families has been discussed on these calls. What about getting a supply of the postal service flat-rate boxes…which are free…and allowing families to purchase the paid labels for those boxes to be mailed home? TIFA Ch L: I am a retired postal worker and quantities of those boxes can be delivered to the units on request.
Mendoza: The first thing I think of is staff issues, which are a huge problem right now. This might be a convenient process for families, but it is not a good time for the agency to commit to a new protocol that would require additional staff time. I think individual families need to try to coordinate any property pickups with their warden.
Prison Show: Ramsey Unit reports respite showers are being offered at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. Lane Murray says officers tell them that workers coming over from the Hughes Unit do not have to wear masks. There is an inmate at Pack Unit who has not received blood pressure medications for about a week and a half. At Hobby Unit many inmates have no opportunity for respite. We hear that thousands of tray lids are being produced. Can you tell us where those are being used to deliver hot meals? That seems to be very intermittent where it is happening at all.
Werner: I do not have a list. Hot meals are still happening in areas not on medical restriction.
Prison Show: As an example of the food problems, Boyd Unit received a johnny with PB&J on a corn tortilla; another unit received cornbread and a half-pint of milk as a meal;…those are not acceptable to anyone, especially not to a nutritionist. We have repeated reports of individuals with problems receiving meds, and of units where requests for routine medical care is still denied. These reports are made by multiple persons regarding multiple units. We receive several reports each week. There is no movement or improvement on some of these issues. The problems are widespread.
Myra Walker, TDCJ Director of Nursing Services: We receive all your emails. We have responded to some and responses are in the works for others. Please continue to send them. We will investigate and respond.
Prison Show: It’s just that we report but things are seldom rectified. I speak to the senior staff on these calls…what you think is happening is NOT happening at the ground level. A culture change is needed. Are you aware that a hunger strike is happening at three buildings on Connally Unit? They are asking for hot meals and for ecomms to be delivered.
Mendoza: We welcome your feedback and comments. We know we don’t hear and see everything. We do have other means of learning some of these things but we do value your input. You make valid points and we do follow up. We hear; we listen; we follow up.
Prison Show: We are very grateful for the opportunity to speak with you all. Please know that on these calls you hear only a fraction of the complaints we receive.
TPAA: I am emailing the majority of my questions as they are unit specific. We do have some reports of inmates in one-man cells are testing positive for the virus…in areas that are on medical lockdown. One is my husband. How is this happening? They have no contact except with staff coming through with johnnies or for med checks.
Walker: I will talk with Public Health about that concern. Please send particulars of where you believe this has happened.
TPAA: Day room rotations are not equitable for all inmates on many units. This affects phone access for the inmates who, for a variety of reasons, may not get their allotted time in the day room. It would be good to have that privilege clarified.
Lumpkin: Send a list of areas with this problem.
Tx Conn: Congratulations to Mr. Lumpkin and Ms. Dunbar on their new positions. We are thankful to Region 6 Director Monroe for the fantastic job he is doing. We do have multiple reports of poor mailroom service…both incoming and outgoing mail seeming to be held. Crain Unit is especially affected.
Lumpkin: We will check. Send other mailroom reports to me or to Mr. Dunbar.
TIFA: TIFA has a lot of mail. We can note that outside mail service is also experiencing slowdowns. This is a free-world issue too.
Mendoza: With over 1000 employees on quarantine or working other positions, a mail slowdown is not too surprising. We will follow up on specific complaints.
Tx Conn: Thanks to all the directors on these calls. This is a valuable resource for families and advocates.
Mendoza: Please don’t stop bringing issues to our attention. Please email any of the agency directors with your concerns. We are thankful for the participation of the groups on these calls; this is helpful for us. We hope it is helpful to you also.
Call adjourned at 11:06 a.m.
Notes of Conference Call August 5, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler.
Call convened at 10:02 a.m. by Mr. Marvin Dunbar, TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management
Roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, The Prison Show, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, Texas Connected…Tx Conn, and FAITH
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director, Jennifer Erschabek; TIFA Ch L indicates a TIFA Chapter Leader)
Agency updates given by Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director. Mr. Mendoza allowed TIFA Director Jennifer Erschabek to give a few ground rules or guidelines for the call, since TIFA is the host organization for the conference calls. Ms. Erschabek requested that all participants mute phones and only unmute them when called on in turn by Mr. Mendoza.
Statistics regarding Covid on the units are updated each evening on the website…the best source of the most current statistics. Several agency directors were on the call. Mr. Mendoza mentioned especially Chris Carter of Rehabilitation Programs Division, Rene Hinojosa of the Parole Division, and Kristina Hartman, Windham Schools Superintendent who would give updates.
Mendoza: The main topic for families again this week seems to be telephone issues. Thanks to all who sent emails with kind words recognizing our efforts. Many emails of another sort were also received…some not kind, some actually insulting; many were “chain letters,” or copies of the same ranting messages. It is your right to send those emails; I receive them; I read them. Those insulting comments are not helpful, whether in email or on the conference calls. We understand that some may not believe we are working on these issues or that our efforts are working.
We began opening phone access two hours earlier and two hours later each day, and last week 66,000 calls from inmates to friends and family were completed…66,000 connections of friends and family. We look forward to that number growing. We know that your personal situation may not have improved yet, but overall the situation is improving. This was a first step in a long journey.
We have no plans at this time to open phone access to 24/7. We are not in a position to do that because of Covid protocols and issues, especially current staff shortages. This is “on the table” as far as being possible at some point in the future, but, just like in-person visitation, it is not even being discussed right now. Our phone initiatives and changes will be slow and sustainable. We feel that is better than promising something we can’t deliver, or starting something and having to pull back because we can’t carry through.
We continue to talk with our partners about getting the 12 video visitation sites up and running for use by families from home. We still have structural issues; issues of moving equipment; we are developing the registration process for families. We hope to be able to offer that registration process to families later this month.
We are purchasing state-owned tablets to support our video visitation initiative. This takes time. There is work to be done on setting up needed connections; there is a state-mandated procurement procedure and state rules to follow for any purchases. We can’t go to Walmart or Amazon and buy tablets. The decision is made, but this is a lengthy process.
We continue to look at better phone options for G5 and restricted housing inmates. Again, we want to be sure we can offer viable and sustainable contact with your loved ones. There are issues of equipment…the costs, infrastructure updates such as wiring. We are testing some of the options on one particular unit now.
As we work on these mechanical issues to provide long-term solutions we may have to do an RFP…Request for Proposal…with the state. We want to extend the video visitation options throughout the agency, at the request of Executive Director Collier. Please understand that our current contracts will require modifications and amendments. All takes time. It is easy to say we will make changes. We understand your frustrations at delays. But significant movement, significant progress is being made. We are committed to reconnecting families and being able to keep those connections going. Insults just don’t help.
Bobby Lumpkin, TDCJ Director of Manufacturing, AgriBusiness, and Logistics reported that his department continues to make insulated lids for meal trays, to facilitate the delivery of hot meals during lockdowns. They have two machines devoted to this project and even while one is down for repairs they are still producing 1200 lids per day.
Mendoza: There continue to be inquiries about inmate transfers. There are some transfers going on, on an “as-needed” basis. We continue to apply our protocols of quarantining and testing as we transfer. Mr. Werner of CID can update us a little on that.
John Werner, Deputy Director of CID: With regard to transfers of inmates, we make sure they are cleared of any medical isolation or medical restriction requirements. We check with the receiving unit to make sure they have appropriate bed space. We are practicing social distancing in transportation, limiting chain buses to 22 passengers and vans to 5 passengers. As we look at program moves we find that we have about 300 inmates ready for program moves who are still in medically restricted areas. Another 380 have been approved for transfer and we are waiting for the receiving units to confirm they are ready for them.
Kristina Hartman, Superintendent of the Windham School District: The new school year begins September 1, but we are a year-round school so classes continue to meet. We have onsite classes at 45 units and another 37 units where distance learning is going on. In-person class gatherings continue to be small, with no more than 10 students meeting together at a time, then doing additional work in their dorms. We have had no reduction in enrollment.
We are expanding efforts of equity and inclusion. That is we are working with CID to extend classes for support and intervention into restricted housing areas.
We have a new family literacy initiative. Since many public schools are using more technology we are trying to help make sure our inmate families have access to technology. We will partner with school districts to facilitate parental involvement and support of students by parents who are incarcerated. This could include teleconferencing with teachers, written correspondence, and even on-site visits (by video.)
The Windham School Board has their regular meetings immediately after the TDCJ Board meetings. The public is invited to stay connected after the TDCJ Board meeting to hear what is going on in Windham. Windham is updating their life skills videos, which they know are out-of-date, and welcome input and suggestions for securing newer options with needed life skills content. Windham continues to increase their use of educational technology.
Research has shown the importance of students being able to see an instructor’s mouth movements, so all Windham educators will be wearing face shields instead of masks while teaching and leading classes.
Chris Carter, TDCJ Director of the Rehabilitative Programs Division: We continue to provide our classes for substance abuse and sex offender rehabilitation, though mainly by use of packets of lessons prepared by licensed professionals. We do have some therapeutic community groups meeting…small numbers, using social distancing and hand sanitizers; disinfecting spaces between group meetings. We have had an up-tick in calls regarding these programs. They are continuing.
Our chaplains continue to make wellness calls for inmates on medical restriction. About 95,000 of these calls have been made so far. The chaplains take personal messages from inmates, make the family call, and return family messages to the inmates. Our department has distributed over 10,000 religious service DVDs to units during the Covid crisis. We have conducted numerous face-time calls for families of severely ill inmates and also used these calls to provide attendance at funerals for some. We have received numerous donations of toiletries and holiday cards for inmates from several volunteer groups.
Rene Hinojosa, TDCJ Director of Parole Services: I’d like to give a brief review of our Covid protocols, which are ongoing. We have limited the number of parole office visitors to new arrivals and those called in for random urinalysis. Masks and social distancing are required in the offices, for staff and for clients. Most staff contact with clients is being done in the field. Where classes are meeting they are limited in size and some classes are meeting by phone or video. Parole hearings are being done from county jails, many by ZOOM. We continue to monitor our half-way houses and substance-abuse treatment centers. We have ongoing monitoring of employees who have tested positive for the virus. The health and safety of staff and clients is our highest priority.
Mr. Mendoza called on the advocacy groups by turn for questions.
TIFA: We’d like to apologize for the extremely negative emails you have had to deal with. We know there are some unruly folks out there and sometimes you just have to choose not to deal with them. We try to teach our members to advocate respectfully and professionally.
Regarding the 1200 lids being produced daily to facilitate the delivery of hot meals…we have heard of them being used at Terrell. Can you give us an idea of when they might be available for use on other units?
Werner: They are already being used at Terrell and Dominguez. They should arrive at Coffield and Polunsky today or tomorrow. We have a list of 13 facilities where they will be used initially.
TIFA: Reports from Polunsky say that the johnnies are worse. Ms. Davis had indicated that there was a complete turnover of food service staff there, but the previous kitchen leader is back.
Werner: Regional director Bryant and the Polunsky warden met there yesterday to discuss use of the trays. They were also randomly pulling and checking johnnies.
TIFA: There is a lack of trust with the reports of johnnies being checked. One photo snapped and sent is not an assurance of quality for a whole batch. Bad johnnies are being reported from other units besides Polunsky.
TIFA: Regarding the compliance teams going out…are their visits announced? And do they randomly review video footage to check for officer compliance with masks, cleaning protocols, and social distancing?
Werner: We are covering different shifts and different hours with those visits. There is usually a notice of arrival, sometimes a day or two, as a courtesy to the warden about who will be on the unit.
TIFA: But that results in situations such as was described to us from the Darrington Unit, where there was a flurry of cleaning and disinfecting of phones before the compliance team visit though those things were not being routinely done.
TIFA: We are getting random reports of suicides. Can you update us on that?
Werner: My phone is with IT right now, but I believe there are no recent reports of suicides.
Myra Walker, TDCJ Director of Nursing Services: I have had no reports of suicides either.
TIFA Ch L: An additional comment about compliance team visits from Coffield…inmates there also report that proper cleaning, provision of cleaning supplies, social distancing efforts are not being done regularly but are being done for show when a team comes through. Also the team has asked inmates about Covid protocols in front of COs and bosses, so that the inmates are not able to speak freely to the team for fear of reprisals.
TX CURE: We have questions about the status of transfers for women’s units, especially Woodman and Plane State.
Werner: We watch for the lifting of medical restrictions to be able to make those transfers. We take a “time out” on transfers while an area is restricted. Sometimes chains are scheduled and then have to be cancelled because of medical restrictions being imposed. We are not moving as many as we had hoped, but some movement is happening.
TX CURE: So when an area goes on medical restriction it is for 14 days?
Werner: Yes. On the 15th day we will have a discussion with the warden and with medical personnel to see about resuming movement.
TX Voices: Clarifying email address for Mr. Hinojosa
Prison Show: Thanks for sending Warden Babcock to the Michael Unit. We hope he will be able to make the needed improvements in operations and staff culture there. Thanks also for improved phone access at Polunsky; however there were some pods on restriction that were passed over as calls were being made.
We reiterate that the current webpage for TDCJ Covid updates is difficult for families to use.
We continue to receive reports of both staff and inmates not taking proper Covid precautions, including the use of PPE and cleaning procedures. Some still have limited access to cleaning supplies.
We concur that giving an early warning of compliance team visits to the units is counter-productive. It’s only natural for people to put their best foot forward, but then you don’t have a realistic picture of conditions on the units. Please look at films from times when the team is not present when assessing compliance.
We have had 14 complaints just this week about the johnnies at Polunsky…(description of poor johnnies, including food loaf in some)…if all this were in one johnny sack, it might be enough food. We also have complaints of food service areas not delivering special medical diets while serving johnnies, and not supplying the medically mandated snacks for inmates with special dietary requirements. When inmates have sent I-60s to medical regarding johnnies, they are told it is an issue for security staff. When they direct these I-60s to wardens, they receive no reply.
Given the size of the issue and the lack of proper food for johnnies, it might be time to ask the agricultural department for their assistance. And when it comes to food and medical, both the Red Cross and the National Guard have portable kitchens and portable medical facilities. We are getting a ton of medical complaints too. Lives and health are at stake here. People are sentenced to a loss of freedom, not these other problems and hardships.
We have reports of I-60s being ignored at Polunsky and Jester 3. Reports from those two units and Ferguson and Clements of requests to see medical being summarily rejected as not being Covid-related. We still have people going without routine meds, including another example of an inmate without meds for over a month.
We congratulate Lorie Davis on her retirement and ask if there is a replacement for her job yet.
Mendoza: No replacement yet.
FAITH: We have sent some questions by email. Thanks for the updates, especially the report from Windham regarding the parent/student program.
TPAA: We have also sent several questions in email. We have many requests for families to be able to purchase the cooling shirts for indigent inmates.
Mendoza: That is not in place.
TPAA: Will you discuss that for the future?
Mendoza: Call me; we can talk.
TPAA: The issue of storage space for property is becoming crucial for many inmates…especially those with many books, because the postage to ship those things out is extremely expensive. Could we look at making arrangements for those things to be picked up at guard shacks?
Mendoza: We have done that in the past. That needs to be a request to the warden for a particular individual. Mr. Werner could help coordinate that if you have difficulty making the arrangements.
TPAA: Last week Mr. Hirsch said inmates in dorm settings need to wear their masks at all times except when sleeping, when lying down, or when eating. At Hughes Unit major cases have been written and areas locked down because of guys not wearing masks.
Mendoza: We have made no procedural changes. We will check with what is going on at Hughes.
TPAA: We understood from last week’s call that inmates entitled to regular phone access would now be getting either 15-minute or 30-minute phone calls, (depending on whether they are on medical restriction) with 5-minute calls allowed to report a positive Covid test, even for inmates who do not have regular phone service. So basically all units should have either 15- or 30-minute calls as the norm. However, we have reports that some areas are still only getting 5-minute calls.
Mendoza: All units have been so instructed. If that is not the case, perhaps it is with some in restricted housing or G5 custody status, areas where there are no OTS phones.
TPAA: These are not reports from restricted areas.
Mendoza: Let Mr. Werner know invidual areas to check.
TPAA: Hamilton Unit has been on extended lockdown. There are many waiting for programs offered there. Do you have an idea of when Hamilton will be able to take transfers?
Werner: They should be clearing restriction on August 6. We hope to start transfers there soon.
Tx CONN: We also wish Ms. Davis the best in her retirement. We know she has been a valuable asset to the agency. We had talked with Warden Rayford at Connelly about the tray lids. Do have any feedback from Connelly about that issue?
Werner: There are five units on the trial list ahead of Connelly. They will not receive their tray lids until next week.
Tx CONN: When we have questions about the grievance process, which Huntsville department should we address?
Mendoza: Mr. Dunbar’s ARRM division
Tx CONN: I’d like to say thank you to TDCJ directors for keeping your composure and conducting yourselves with class even when attacked. We appreciate it.
Mendoza: Thank you for your kind words. We know these are challenging times for all of us, not just TDCJ personnel. We appreciate the opportunity to communicate with you. We’ll see you next week. Stay safe.
Call adjourned @ 11:00 a.m.
Notes of Conference Call July 29, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Call convened at 10:00 a.m. by Mr. Marvin Dunbar, TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management
Roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, The Prison Show, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, Texas Connected…Tx Conn, and FAITH
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director, Jennifer Erschabek; TIFA Ch L indicates a TIFA Chapter Leader)
Agency updates given by Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director. Statistics regarding Covid on the units are updated each evening on the website. The main concerns received by the agency this week concerned the telephone process, grievances, and food. Mr. Mendoza received over 100 emails on phone issues, which he described as communications “with merit.” The agency understands the concerns about phone access while visitation is not possible. Mr. Mendoza reiterates that no discussion about restarting visitation is underway. Anything to the contrary is a rumor.
The agency is moving forward with the new telephone initiatives but has encountered some unforeseen issues on various units which have prevented them moving as quickly as hoped, but significant movement is coming. For right now, they are trying for a policy that will be simple to implement and simple to understand. For phone use all areas of general population inmates will be categorized as either “Covid-affected” or “non-Covid-affected.” An affected area is one which is on medical restriction, in medical isolation, or on precautionary medical lockdown. General population inmates in those areas will get 15-minute phone calls. General population inmates who are in non-Covid-affected areas may have the customary 30-minute calls. We hope this policy will be in place for all general population inmates as early as this evening.
Inmates in restrictive housing…G5 and AdSeg…will be held to the 5-minute, escorted calls for now. We know this is not what you wanted to hear, but we have to start somewhere. We hope eventually to extend more phone access to those folks. We are finding a lot of challenges…equipment needs, wiring and other infrastructure issues. It sounds like a simple process but it is not. We are trying to meet challenges as they arise.
We are also extending telephone access from the previous 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. window to a 5 a.m. to 12 midnight window. Many had asked for 24/7 phone access. We are willing to make extensions but we want to have a sustainable policy and not promise what we can’t deliver or can’t maintain. We will consider 24/7 access for the future.
TIFA: Is the agency moving away from talking in terms of different “phases” for Covid protocols?
Mendoza: Yes, we have backed off that terminology because of the need to be constantly fluid in our Covid response.
TIFA: Will the 30-minute calls for unaffected areas be unlimited?
Billy Hirsh, Deputy Director CID: Those areas will have their normal call access.
TIFA: When a unit is on precautionary lockdown, is the whole unit on phone restrictions?
Hirsh: Wherever movement is restricted, phone access is restricted.
TIFA: What about split units…where the layout permits some units to be locked down but not all?
Hirsh: We consult with the vendor each day to set up 30-minute call area and 15-minute call areas as needed.
TIFA: When you spoke of challenges in implementing upgrades for phone access on individual units, is there a list of those units we could see?
Mendoza: I was speaking holistically. It is a day-by-day process; many challenges arise in the field.
Tx CURE: Will the 15-minute calls from affected areas be limited to one per day or allowed as often as phones are open?
Mendoza: Right now one per day. We could consider more frequent access later, but this is about restricting movement in those areas.
Tx CURE: Will the 5-minute calls from restrictive housing areas be free or collect calls?
Mendoza: We will continue to provide those calls for families.
Tx CURE: Will Death Row inmates receive those calls as well…and if so, how often…weekly?
Hirsh: Death Row phone access is being treated like access for other restricted housing areas. The stated policy is that calls may be requested every 90 days. We will do them more often, if staffing is available.
Mendoza: I prefer not to use that phrase… “if staffing is available.” Realistically, being about 6000 employees short…we want to make progress but we cannot make promises. We will make a concerted effort to get some calls for those inmates.
FAITH: Is there a way to disinfect phones after each use?
Mendoza: It is part of our Covid protocols that phones are disinfected after each use.
TIFA Ch L: Would you describe for us what that disinfection procedure should look…something we could report to families and inmates so that it can be observed whether that disinfection procedure is being carried out or not?
Mendoza: There may be different processes for disinfecting phones on different units. It is the warden’s discretion of how to accomplish that, but if it is not happening on your unit call your warden, call regional, call CID.
TPAA: Are there any changes to mask requirements? Some are told not necessary on bunks; now some see signs saying masks are required 24/7.
Hirsh: In the dorm areas, bunks and cubicles are too close to each other for actual social distancing. We have seen some rapid spreading of the virus in dorm settings. Inmates are being told to wear masks even in their cubicles when sitting or standing. Only when lying down or eating/drinking can they remove it.
Prison Show: Some report needing to pull their mask down for phone voice recognition to work and some have received cases for doing that.
Hirsh: They definitely need to wear the mask when using the phone as that is a hotspot area on the units. We will check with Securus to see if muffled voices are an issue for voice recognition.
Mendoza: We are receiving calls about staff members not following Covid protocols. Our CID leadership communicates daily with regional directors and unit leadership. Corrective actions are being taken.
TPAA: Has anyone seen the video from a Houston doctor about 3 medications she has reported success with in over 300 Covid patients? Could we reach out to that doctor?
Mendoza: No one in this room right now is qualified to respond to questions about medical treatments. I will ask Dr. L and her team.
Myra Walker, TDCJ Director of Nursing Services: I am here. I have not seen the video. Send a link and I will pass it on.
Prison Show: I have seen the video. This woman is not a qualified medical practitioner and she has no data to share.
TCJC: This woman has other highly questionable claims.
TPAA: Is there a list we could access of units which will be retested for Covid? Wynne and Daniel units have heard there will be a second round of testing there. Is that true?
Mendoza: I’m not trying to be vague when I say, “It’s possible.” There is no “list.” Due to the fluid nature of Covid we have to stay flexible. We look at daily activity and check with our medical group to decide where and when to do retesting.
Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff: We do our targeted retesting in units where the surrounding county is a Covid “hotspot;” in units where Covid symptoms are increasing; and also in units with highly vulnerable populations. If we made a list it would be quickly outdated. Retesting is a day-by-day decision.
TPAA: Have dental services resumed? We are getting reports of requests for service being denied.
Walker: Medical services and dental services are open (…where units are not locked down.) Dr. Horton addresses the requests for dental services. Send names of specific units where services are being denied.
Tx CURE: We have many reports of units where requests for medical services are being returned with a sticker saying they will not be seen, their issue is not an emergency.
Walker: My office has responded to other emails about this issue. Please send details of specific units in an email. My investigators monitor access to care at all units.
Tx CURE: I will also scan and send copies of those I-60s with denial stickers.
Prison Show: A denial sticker on a medical request is not “access to medical care.” I had previously talked with Dr. L about an inmate who did not receive blood pressure medication for at least 12 days. We have since received a letter acknowledging that was indeed the case, and the situation has been corrected. But it feels like medical care in TDCJ is falling apart, based on the number of complaints we are receiving. I will send specifics of a case where an inmate with an abcessed molar is being refused care.
Mendoza: Please email your list of specific units and cases needing attention.
Prison Show: Would you please describe the Covid testing process; would it be possible for an inmate to “fake” giving a sample for the test?
Mendoza: There are different types of tests being used…for the targeted mass testing and the symptomatic testing administered by medical personnel.
Clark: In our mass testing, the individual swabs his own cheek, tongue, roof of mouth, for 20 to 30 seconds while being observed by trained testing staff. It would be very difficult to fake it.
TIFA: On the Halbert Unit, one of the smaller units, Covid cases seem to have “blown up,” with 114 active cases now reported. What type of medical services and isolation areas are available on those small units?
Walker: All units have separate health services. I am not aware of any unit saying they are unable to handle their Covid cases in terms of housing or needed staff.
TIFA: When there are symptomatic Covid cases in isolation on a unit, what heat accommodations are being made for those individuals? We know that heat can be a complicating factor for the disease.
Walker: Please send specifics for individuals or units not getting adequate heat relief with Covid.
TPAA: Polunsky reports positive and non-positive Covid cases being housed on the same wing.
Hirsh: That is a unit were there are separate pods within a wing and cells with solid doors. We can keep the groups apart.
TPAA: Are you continuing 14-day quarantine for inmates coming in from county and for transfers between units? We have reports that say that is not always observed.
Hirsh: Yes, that is the policy. Send names of units where it is not happening.
FOOD AND FOOD SERVICE ISSUES
Mendoza: Regarding food, especially johnnies, we continue to look at alternative ways to deliver hot food. We are using insulated lids for trays in some units and working on other initiatives and alternatives. We feel like we get a good idea going and then another wave of Covid hits and we get knocked back just when we feel we are making some progress. Containing Covid always has to be our priority.
Tx CURE: We heard about the lids for trays being tried in 15 units. How is that trial going?
Hirsh: We are continuing that trial.
Bobby Lumpkin, TDCJ Director of Manufacturing, Agribusiness, and Logistics. We are continuing to produce those lids and to send them out to CID for distribution to the units as requested.
TIFA: We know the agency receives large donations of fruit and vegetables, especially in the San Antonio area. How are those donations distributed?
Hirsh: We also receive considerable donations from food banks in other parts of the state. Perishable items are disseminated in the same area where received. They have to be used quickly.
Prison Show: Your new website for Covid information is harder to use than the old one.
TIFA: Dominguez Unit wonders if opening the louvered vents in the roof would provide better airflow and some heat relief.
Cody Ginsel, Director of Facilities Management: Those surge fans don’t help much with the heat, but we can check.
TPAA: Some unit wardens have been open to receiving supplies donated by church groups. May all wardens accept such items?
Mendoza: There is no prohibition on receiving such donations. Wardens do need to check with their regional directors and departmental directors.
Prison Show: We have some complaints about reprisals on inmates who report problems. This includes the Michael Unit mental health area where some say they have been gassed multiple times a day. Other inmates are sending reports of a man being beaten repeatedly. At Telford inmates report a man placed on suicide watch after a beating who is being further harassed by officers. Is there video in these areas that can be checked?
Mendoza: Some units have video and some don’t. Please send unit details in an email. I cannot give you a decent answer on issues like this without doing an investigation.
Tx CURE: Should mental health issues be directed to Dr. L or to another entity?
Mendoza: to Dr. Linthicum or Ms. Walker
Prison Show: We have reports of some inmates at Littlefield being shackled all day.
Mendoza: Littlefield is not under TDCJ jurisdiction.
Mr. Mendoza adjourned the call at 10:51
Notes of Conference Call July 22, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler.
Call convened at 10:00 a.m. by Bobby Lumpkin, TDCJ Director of Manufacturing, Agribusiness, and Logistics.
Roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, The Prison Show, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, Texas Connected…Tx Conn, and FAITH.
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director, Jennifer Erschabek) Many agency departmental directors or their deputies or staff were on the call to make reports and/or answer questions.
Mr. Lumpkin, sitting in for TDCJ Deputy Executive Director Oscar Mendoza, conveyed Mr. Mendoza’s thanks for many encouraging calls and kind words received. The compliance assessment teams, organized by and reporting to TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier, continue to visit state and private facilities, offices, and parole locations, monitoring issues of health and safety, including supplies of PPE and sanitizing practices. The teams meet with wardens to discuss any lack of compliance. They visit some facilities each week and will continue to do so through the virus crisis.
Regarding video visitation, Mr. Lumpkin reports that talks are ongoing with the vendor regarding expanding service from the 12 units which are already equipped for some level of video participation.
Eric Guerrero, Deputy Director of CID operations: We have produced some lids for the blue meal trays to facilitate the delivery of more hot meals to inmates on lockdown. They were initiated in a trial at the Terrell Unit on July 16, where staff reported satisfaction with being able to deliver a hot meal faster and better. The full piloting of the lids will include 15 units…Connally, Huntsville, Estelle, Polunsky, Coffield, Ramsey, Eastham, Pack, Stiles, Jester 1 and 3, Vance, Dominguez, and Ferguson.
Roll call of advocacy groups on the call was conducted by Marvin Dunbar, TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management. The first two groups called on, FAITH and Texas CURE, reported that all their questions had been submitted in email. At the end of the call TCJC and Tx Conn also reported questions sent by email or already addressed.
TIFA: Given that the number of employees testing positive for Covid-19 continues to rise, how are you handling staffing issues?
Guerrero: We continue to use overtime hours to provide proper coverage. We are discussing the use of some non-security personnel in some unit positions, including controlled picket areas, if they have had basic security training.
TIFA: Are you considering idling more units?
Lumpkin: We are discussing that possibility, yes, but have made no decisions yet.
TIFA: Are you still considering providing the frozen bottles of water?
Lumpkin: We are researching that; no movement on that yet.
TPAA: Please speak to the issue of classes for those with FI-6 parole status. Ms. Payne in Classification says there is no movement now for these inmates because the units which host those classes are on lockdown. Do you have a plan to get them back on track or are they just still waiting?
Christopher Carter, TDCJ Director of Rehabilitation and Chaplaincy Services: We are only moving about 40 persons per week for those programs. We move them as the opportunity opens. We will not be moving anyone to the locked down units.
TPAA: At one time calls to family from G5 and AdSeg were not being charged. Now we hear that those calls are again coming as collect calls.
Guerrero: Yes, a few weeks ago we returned to the original policy regarding phone use for those inmates. If they are case-free for 90 days they can submit an I-60 and request to make a call. As in the past, those will be collect calls.
TPAA: Estelle Unit is denying sick call requests if the issue is not Covid related.
TPAA: Were the fresh fruits and vegetables only for the johnnies, or will those continue with regular chow?
Lumpkin: That depends on availability.
TPAA: Some units are reporting water being provided only twice daily and no ice.
TPAA: Has pest control stopped while Covid protocols are in place? There is an increase in rats and roaches.
Lumpkin: Pest control continues on the regular schedule of every 90 days in housing areas and every 30 days in food service areas; some by TDCJ and some by contractors.
TPAA: We will send a list of the units reporting failure of proper sanitizing procedures.
TPAA: When should we expect Ecomm to resume when a unit comes up from lockdown?
Eric Johnston, TDCJ Director of Commissary Services: The next day after lockdown is released.
TPAA: We have a lot of reports of delays in Ecomm delivery.
Johnston: We have many units that are short-staffed; we are doing our best to catch up.
TPAA: Big ‘thank you’ to Warden Thompson at Robertson Unit from the inmates of 19X (S?) who are very grateful for the extra phones he has helped provide. Other unit-specific questions to be sent in email.
Prison Show: I have four pages of emails, which I will send, so I will only hit the hot spots here. Coffield Unit in particular seems to have a lot of issues. There is a problem of keeping adequate PPE available. Men are being sent to the showers in large groups of 30 or 40, impossible to do social distancing. Inmates who have tested positive are preparing and serving food. Without commissary access and the very limited lockdown spends people are running out of stamps and other supplies. People are requesting the indigent packs for all inmates while the unit is locked down.
At Ramsey Unit, many officers are just sitting and refusing to provide phone access to inmates. There have been serious fights that go uninterrupted by officers. A particular female officer who does not wear a nametag has been mentioned as failing to perform her duties for several evenings.
After the riot at Briscoe Unit there has been no news released. Families are not able to get information about their loved ones. Please provide a statement to help alleviate their worries.
Several units report grievances being held past the response date; many grievances go without resolution.
Several units continue to report important, even life-threatening, health issues are going untreated because of restricted access to health care during Covid lockdowns. People still report not having access to medications.
Lumpkin: We have been taking notes to follow up. The Briscoe incident is still under review.
Dr. Lannette Linthicum, TDCJ Director of Medical Services: After last week’s call, I asked for a review of all medical grievances. The number of medical grievances received during the Covid crisis is miniscule. There are very, very few Step 1 or Step 2 medical grievances. As I said last week, we have made many medications KoP…Keep on Person. Inmates can continue to use walk-in medical services on their unit. They can talk to the medical personnel circulating in their area while locked down. Ask the families to please use the medical hotlines to get these concerns to us.
Prison Show: You know and we know that at your level, and when you all visit the units, everyone is on good behavior. It’s not always the same story when you get down to the level of the dorms when no one is watching.
Dr. L: We intend to ensure access to care. The offenders must voice a lack of care and we will investigate. All of our medication records are automated. Give me a name and number and I can see all medications that have been prescribed and when they have been given to the inmate. We can monitor compliance by the inmate and by the unit regarding medications.
Prison Show: If a fan is broken, does an inmate have to wait a year from the purchase date to buy another?
Lumpkin: They can resubmit a request now.
Mr. Lumpkin adjourned the call at 10:22, with the next call scheduled for Wednesday, July 29.
Notes of Conference Call July 15, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler. Some questions and responses from the call have been moved out of chronological order in this summary, in part to place items nearer to related items. READ TO THE END FOR A NICE SURPRISE!
Call convened at 10:02 a.m. by Mr. Marvin Dunbar, TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management
Roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, The Prison Show, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, Texas Connected…Tx Conn, and FAITH.
Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff, gave the agency update, sitting in for Deputy Executive Director Mendoza
TDCJ has completed over 137 thousand Covid tests for inmates and 41 thousand for staff members. Active cases include 3819 inmates and 986 employees. 32 units are currently on precautionary medical lockdown. We know that there is a surge of Covid cases in the entire state and TDCJ remains on high alert to mitigate the spread of Covid in the system. Compliance review teams are visiting the units, parole offices, and administrative offices to assure ongoing efforts and to identify best practices being used and share those with other areas. Over 82 thousand family contact calls have been done by TDCJ chaplaincy services.
Some progress is being made in increasing family communications. Areas which had been limited to 10 minute phone calls have been able to increase that to 15 minute calls. Also, conversations with Securus about new options are ongoing. Phone access for inmates in isolation areas is increasing. (New phone lines will be added. Cordless phones for use in AdSeg and G5 areas will also require new lines to be installed. This information is from Jennifer’s conversations with TDCJ.)
TIFA: We continue to have reports of bad food, especially at Coffield and Polunsky. The use of “food loaf” in the johnnies feels like a punishment to the inmates.
Lorie Davis, Director of CID: We are monitoring food service at those units. The wardens and regional directors have been involved. We are acknowledging “errors” at both facilities. One day at Coffield it was noticed that there was insufficient food in the johnnies. The protocols in place worked; additional work had to be done before the meals were sent out, so they were very late. There is education and redistribution of food service staff there. Warden Putnam was personally monitoring the johnnies this past Saturday. They were able to include some fresh fruit although we are experiencing delivery issues with suppliers in the Palestine area and some other areas as well. We are working to get supplemental and various items to go in the johnnies. We have lids for our Styrofoam cups now and can serve things like spaghetti and beef stew in the cups. At Polunsky there has been a total turnover of food staff. Warden Dickerson is very involved. Some staff members made bad choices and have been replaced. The team is being rebuilt. Mr. Dunbar’s ARRM team monitors johnnies and reports directly to Bryan Collier on their johnny sack inspections. This continues to be a priority for us.
TIFA: When is it okay for inmates to leave off their masks?
Dr. L: Those on medical restriction, that is in 14-day quarantine status, having had a high risk of exposure to Covid, but not exhibiting symptoms themselves, could leave off masks in their immediate housing area. Those who are in medical isolation, because of a positive test or active symptoms awaiting test results, are expected to wear masks, even in their private areas.
TIFA: So masks not required in their cells or on their bunks?
Dr. L: If you are speaking of a dorm setting, where it is not possible to have 6 feet for social distancing, they should really be wearing masks.
Tx CURE: Even on the outside we are told to wear masks any time we are in contact with others.
Dr. L: Families are asked to please encourage your loved ones to wear masks. We appreciate you helping with that. It is so important. Our nrses are constantly having to remind patients to wear their masks.
FAITH: Many say it is difficult to breathe. The masks are a thick cotton…
Dr L: They are NOT thick cotton. I have tested them myself. They are not T-shirt material; they are not the heavy cotton of the white uniforms.
Ron Hudson, TDCJ Manufacturing: They are light-weight cotton.
Clark: I have been wearing one this morning.
TIFA Ch L: If they are the same as the masks being worn and provided in parole offices, I have seen them and they are not thick cotton.
Dr. L: Yes, those are the same masks provided to inmates. We understand some individuals have various problems that make wearing the mask more difficult, but we really must encourage compliance. We do it for each other.
FAITH: I guess there is some getting used to it…overcoming feelings of claustrophobia.
TIFA Ch L: And the strings are really long.
Dr. L: We’re not going to have any “use of force” for not wearing a mask. Are they getting cases for not wearing masks in the dorms?
Clark: We try to use verbal intervention. If there is a flat-out refusal, there could possibly be a case written, but it’s not going to be step one.
MEDICAL and COVID ISSUES
TPAA: What is the goal for mass re-testing by the agency? Will retesting happen at all units?
Clark: We are doing some targeted retesting in consultation with Dr. L and the university health providers. We are looking again at our most vulnerable populations and areas with a high incidence of Covid symptoms. Symptomatic testing continues at all units.
Dr. L: We have a large geriatric population, people 65 and over. The purpose of our targeted testing is to quickly find any positive cases of Covid that show up and get those folks isolated and away from the negatives.
TPAA: If a very large number of positive cases shows up on a unit and exceeds the number of isolation beds, is there a plan?
Dr. L: We do have a plan. We have a “surge capacity” for isolation beds. For example, Jester 1 can have the whole unit full of positive Covid cases. Some cell block units have a wing designated to become an isolation wing and we will move people as necessary. We also have a contract with a Houston hospital and have moved about 20 non-Covid patients from Hospital Galveston to be cared for there.
TIFA: We notice that the listing of deaths from Covid on the TDCJ website is about two weeks behind. Will you tell us about the reasons for that?
Clark: Usually it is because of pending autopsies. Or waiting to get a family’s decision not to have an autopsy.
Dr. L: At times there is confusion about the cause of death because of co-existing illness in the patient. We wait for at least a preliminary autopsy finding to put the person in the “presumed category” for cause of death due to Covid. For example, if someone is dying from sepsis due to E-coli and they also have Covid, we want to categorize the death correctly. If the family refuses to allow an autopsy, which they have the right to do when someone dies of natural causes, the TDCJ/University Providers Morbidity and Mortality Committee will evaluate the record and make a consensus decision about cause of death. That is complicated when Covid is present with other illnesses. We want to be as accurate as possible.
Notes of Conference Call July 8, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Call convened at 10:02 a.m. by Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Director of Programs, Sharon McKinney. TIFA Ch L indicates a TIFA Chapter Leader)
Mr. Mendoza reminded us of Covid statistics available on the TDCJ website. His opening comments acknowledged that questions about telephone access for inmates has been the main topic of calls and emails to the agency recently. He expressed thanks for all who have sent words of appreciation for the agency’s efforts. He also thanks those he calls “naysayers and haters” for continuing to point out areas of need, saying it keeps them on their toes, challenges them to continue to improve. (Mr. Mendoza also indicated obliquely, later in the call, that some of those communications were actually hateful. TIFA reminds prison families that our policy is always to treat agency personnel with the same level of respect we expect for our loved ones.) Mr. Mendoza’s report of work on phone access follows.
Regarding duration of calls for inmates…it is still agency policy that when an area first goes on medical restriction, limitation of movement is extremely important, and while a unit is analyzing how Covid protocols will be implemented in that area, the 5-minute calls will be in place. As soon as deemed appropriate, the 5-minute calls will go to 15 minutes, not 10, and then to 30 minutes. It is the plan to continue to offer more regular phone access to G5 and AdSeg. Internal adjustments are needed on some units. CID is studying how to make that happen at all units.
Mr. Melvin Neely, TDCJ’s chief information officer, and his team are hard at work on the technical aspects of changes needed to improve communications for inmates and families. Vendors have agreed to provide more phones. TDCJ is studying how many phones can be added and where. Some phones may be old-school landlines. Mr. Neely and team are surveying quantity and placement of lines, conduits, receiver types, including cordless phones. There are a lot of mechanical issues to be worked out but the ball is rolling.
Regarding video visitation…12 units currently have the capability to receive video visitation from other prison sites. All 12 of those sites will be turned on shortly. We are looking at what it will take for families to do video visitation to those units from their homes, with computer, tablet, or smartphone. We are moving toward that.
We want the changes we make to be reliable and sustainable. These are some short-term fixes we feel we can get to fairly quickly, since it is evident that in-person visitation is not returning any time soon. TDCJ has approved these ideas, Mr. Collier has approved them; all hands are working. We are looking at options for increasing video visitation system-wide, something that will be sustainable. We had not previously done all the study necessary for making these changes, but Covid changes everything. We are now ready to take on those challenges. The decision has been made; there is lots of work to do. Keep in mind if you have questions for Mr. Neely, some of the answers may be, “I don’t know.” We are making sincere efforts to improve phone access and to begin video visitation.
We are looking at how to improve access to recreation. It will be different. It won’t be basketball and handball. We will continue to try to use social distancing.
The agency is currently OVER FIVE THOUSAND officers short. No one has ever seen this level of shortage in the agency. Another ONE THOUSAND employees are out on quarantine. That is over SIX THOUSAND employees out of pocket. This has affected the functioning of many areas of the units. Yes, mailrooms are affected on some units, as mailroom staff are taking up slack on other areas of the units. Mailroom staff and records department staff may be making johnnies in the kitchen. Wardens are scrambling for bodies to work the various departments of their units. The number of inmate workers is also limited on some units because of quarantine issues.
We are making progress. It may be slowly, but we are moving. We can’t just open the gate and go back to “normal,” either inside or outside the prisons. There is no return to the way things used to be for any of us. We have to find new ways of dealing with things. We know that is frustrating for families; it is frustrating for us. Health and safety of staff and inmates remains our primary concern. Some of our answers to your questions have to be, “We don’t know.”
TIFA Ch L: We understand the concept of minimizing movement in an area that is on medical lockdown, resulting in the drastic limit on phone calls from those areas. Would it be really detrimental to allow a 10-minute call instead of a 5-minute call from those areas?
Mendoza: When an area goes on precautionary lockdown we look at how best to handle the situation to prevent further outbreak. We try to keep that area as still as possible while we look at next steps. We know it is frustrating for you. There are feasibility problems for allowing longer calls for everyone in a restricted situation. But now, when more freedom of movement is allowed, calls will go from 5 minutes to 15 minutes.
TPAA: We appreciate an increase from 10 to 15 minutes for those calls. At what point in the protocol can calls be expected to go from 15 to 30 minutes?
John Werner, Deputy Director of CID: When an area has fewer issues with Covid and needs fewer people on medical restriction is when we look at increasing phone and rec time.
Prison Show: I think some of the “haters” that have contacted you are mainly frustrated by the fact that you state agency policy on these calls and then when you send that down it is not implemented on the units.
TPAA: Regarding video visits…12 units have some capability already. At some point will that be available from all units?
Mendoza: Yes, we expect to get those 12 up right away and long term to extend that to as many units as possible.
FAITH: Thank you for looking at making video visits possible. I am legally blind, on oxygen, and have limited mobility. This would be an awesome option for me. I do hope you will not do away with in-person visits.
Mendoza: We understand. We are not talking about replacing in-person visits. Video is just another option. Mr. Neely and his crew are working nearly around the clock to get this going.
TX Conn: With in-person visits there is a limit of 10 people for the visitation list. Would that be the same with video visitation?
Mendoza: We don’t know yet.
TPAA: Are you still looking at tablets for inmates?
Mendoza: We are still considering the logistics. That is not off the table.
TIFA: The biggest complaint we continue to hear is about guards not wearing masks. Is that still mandatory? What can be done to ensure compliance?
Mendoza: Yes, it is mandatory, not only for COs but for all TDCJ employees. Wardens, CID, other directors are writing up personnel for not complying with mask rules. When you have specific sites where personnel are not complying please contact TDCJ leadership. We have established compliance teams which visit the units, looking at how precautionary protocols are being followed. They report directly to Bryan Collier. In daily intra-agency calls, Executive Director Collier reminds all TDCJ leadership of the importance of compliance with wearing masks. There have also been signs placed on the units and throughout the agency reminding personnel of the policy. We know there are failures in some areas. Please report them.
TIFA Ch L: a two-part question for medical: How often are patients’ electronic medical records updated? And why would a unit either refuse or be unable to answer medical questions for a family member who has an updated form for release of medical information (HIPAA) on file?
Dr. Lannette Linthicum, TDCJ Director of Health Services: Information is entered electronically at the time of the visit; when a person is seen by medical personnel. When a family contacts medical on the unit they are speaking with the “Facility Practice Manager” on UTMB units, or the “Unit Health Administrator” on TTU units. After taking the call, that person may refer the family member to another person on the unit medical staff, but those are the initial contacts for unit medical; they have been asked to answer family medical calls to the unit. If the calls are Covid related, please use the medical hotline numbers available on the TDCJ website. (TTU units—806-743-3285; UTMB units –409-747-2727; these are manned 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. M-F) If the calls are not Covid related, the general medical hotline, the patient liaison hotline, 936-437-4271, staffed by three medical staff members 8:00 a.m. to 5 p.m. M-F, may be a better point of contact than the unit. They can answer any health issue questions…medical, dental, or mental health.
TIFA Ch L: Stamps are in high demand right now. When commissary and ecomm are not running, how can inmates obtain stamps?
Eric Johnston, TDCJ Director of Commissary Services: The limited commissary runs for hygiene and correspondence are continuing. They should have access to stamps.
TIFA Ch L: Coffield is not having regular limited commissary runs.
Mendoza: Mr. Werner and Mr. Dunbar will check on that and respond offline.
TIFA Ch L: Inmates on lockdown need some nutritious items in the limited commissary runs, to supplement the johnnies. They also need to be able to buy cooling shirts.
TIFA Ch L: Has TDCJ dropped its commitment to better quality and quantity of food in johnnies for those areas on lockdown? We continue to get reports, especially from Coffield, of getting only two sandwiches, twice daily, no drinks, no additional items. How are johnnies being monitored, other than by family complaints?
FAITH: I have sent an email with inmate journals about the johnnies at Coffield to Lorie Davis, Marvin Dunbar, and Warden Putnam. You can see the daily reports of the johnnies on that unit. There are no fruits or vegetables, or drinks. Last night the sacks included some meat not fully cooked and some frozen burritos. Inmates at Polunsky have major issues with johnnies, including moldy food and frozen food, and johnnies being served as much as 15 hours apart.
Prison Show: We also continue to get reports, including photos, of really bad johnnies.
Mendoza: We have not abandoned our commitment to nutritious and edible food in the johnnies. They are monitored at the unit level by wardens and food service; ARRM teams continue to visit units and eat the johnnies. I have visited the units and eaten johnnies. Please continue to communicate names of specific units where there are problems.
Dunbar: Yes, I will check on specific units.
FAITH: Some of our families are writing daily to inmates at Coffield during the past few weeks of lockdown. Inmates say in calls that mail and JPays are not being received. The mailroom says JPays are being printed and given to COs, but they are not being delivered.
FAITH: Inmates at Stringfellow say water is standing ankeldeep in some showers and some shower heads are broken. They are being told about both issues that they are waiting on engineers from Huntsville to deal with the problems. The shower areas also not being sanitized.
Mendoza: Please do send these details and your food journals in an email, with contact information. We will follow up and respond to you.
FAITH: Thank you. We are also thankful to Dr. L and Myra Walker for their help with issues at Vance Unit recently.
TIFA Ch L: We are concerned about inmate workers being sent from units with high positive Covid numbers to other units with less Covid involvement. Can they be kept separate from other workers?
Werner: Some parts of a unit may be on medical restriction while other areas are not. We are not sending workers to other units from affected areas.
Prison Show: We have complaints of inmates at Littlefield being shackled for extended periods of time. Please investigate that. We also have a number of units reporting people not receiving medications, including one man who said he had been without blood pressure medication for 12 days. Others have not received authorized pain medications. We are also hearing reports of retaliation on inmates who have filed grievances on these issues. These reports include Jester 3, Ferguson, LeBlanc, and Bill Clements units.
Dr. L: About three-fourths of all our medications are now KoP…Keep on Person..and that includes blood pressure medication. Some pain meds are narcotic and have to be administered by medical personnel in person. I will get with the nursing officers on the units you have named. But I am the Step #2 grievance officer for medical grievances and we are not getting a lot of grievances on these issues. If you want to send individual cases, I will look at them. Ask for grievances to be filed.
TX Conn: We have heard there is a new warden at Allred Unit…can you confirm that?
Mendoza: I have not heard that.
TX Conn: We have contacted the Allred warden and Mr. Blackwell about technical problems with the phones at Allred.
Melvin Neely: We know about the problems with phones at Allred. There is an ATT circuit down. They are working on it now.
TX Conn: We have a person approved for release with FI-1 who has been waiting for a while.
Mendoza: Sounds like maybe a problem getting the home plan approved.
Rene Hinojosa, TDCJ Director of Parole: Send me specific details in email, please.
TCJC: My questions are for specific units or individuals. I’ll send them in email.
Mendoza: We hope to have more progress to report to you next week. Please continue to use the ombudsman’s hotline, 1-844-476-1289 for concerns other than medical, and/or email any of the directors.
Call adjourned at 11:03.
Notes of Conference Call July 1, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Call convened at 10:03 a.m. by Mr. Oscar Mendoza, TDCJ Deputy Executive Director
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Director of Programs, Sharon McKinney. TIFA Ch L indicates a TIFA Chapter Leader)
Mr. Mendoza dispensed with the usual summary overview of statistics, noting the availability of that information on the TDCJ website while assuring that they would answer questions about the numbers if requested. He affirmed that the agency knows the families’ overwhelming concerns right now have to do with visitation and telephone access. The agency has received an enormous number of calls relating to phone access and use. They appreciate family feedback and hope to deal with many of those questions and concerns on today’s call.
Obviously, visitation will not happen any time soon. We are committed to resuming visitation but we cannot give you a date. Our numbers of virus cases recovered continues to increase but we are also have some new cases showing up. The situation is shifting daily. We are not even talking about visitation right now. We cannot do it safely for inmates, staff, or visitors. When we are ready to resume visits you will hear about it on these calls. It will not come through rumors on the units.
We know that maintaining family communication by telephone is very important during this time without visitation. We are discussing several options. 1)Increasing time limits of phone calls 2) evaluating current equipment and infrastructure and looking at where additional phones could be placed quickly and easily 3) talking about adding equipment and infrastructure we don’t currently have, including tablets 4) other possibilities for what could be done in-house, old-school, with current technology In short, we are looking at everything, aggressively. We are talking to our partners (Securus? Century Link?) about support and infrastructure for changes.
We know people will be saying we should have done something earlier. It’s always possible to say, “coulda, shoulda, woulda.” We had hoped there would be a short plan for being able to resume visitation, but the crisis has gone on longer than anyone expected. We will plead guilty to not starting to work on this issue sooner, but we are committed going forward to adjusting policies and procedures, to increasing phone access and improving communication equipment as we can. We are working on both short- and long-term plans for improvement.
We are asking for your patience and understanding. There is not a quick fix for these issues. We are looking for sustainable responses that will be good for the long haul. Many of our directors were in a significant meeting earlier this morning to discuss these issues. They are gathering information now. Things are moving, and I would say they are moving very quickly. We are getting ready to deploy some substitute for face-to-face visits. We acknowledge the curiosity, concerns, and even doubt by the families. Our first ideas for resuming visitation did not prove to be workable. I humbly ask you to believe that we are trying. If you have very technical questions to follow up on these comments today, you may get a response of, “I don’t know,” but we are working on it.
TIFA: Do you have plans to restore regular phone access for G5 and AdSeg?
Mendoza: Yes. We are looking at a plan to allow them to continue to have some phone access.
TIFA: If a CO or other employee tests positive for Covid, what is the procedure for testing or quarantining their co-workers?
Dr. Lannette Linthicum, TDCJ Director of Health Services: Any positive test result on a unit, whether inmate or employee, will result in contact tracing by an infection control nurse employed by the University which oversees care on the unit. They will communicate to TDCJ the risk of exposure from that positive…exposure levels are assessed as being high, moderate, or none. From a high risk of exposure, an employee is sent home to self-quarantine for 14 days; an inmate is placed in medical restriction.
TIFA Ch L: Thank you to Mr. Mendoza and the agency for the information about phones. We do want visits but we also want them to be safe. Our biggest concern right now is the limitation of calls to 5 and 10 minutes on so many units.
TPAA: Who controls the phones on a unit…the warden or Huntsville? Some say the wardens make the decision whether calls will be cut off at 5 or at 10 minutes. Who determines that? Can inmates still request to use the phones after 10:00 p.m. rack-up?
Texas CURE: Some units that have come up from medical lockdown and are in Phase 3 status still have only 10 minute calls. When will they be able to go back to 30 minutes? And as phone access goes back to 30 minutes, will phones still be on 24/7?
Tx Conn: Do the discussions include expansion of video visits and the use of tablets?
Mendoza: The IT department in Huntsville has the technical control of the phone system. Wardens have a significant say, so it’s a dual level of control. The wardens will be following directives from CID, Ms. Davis’ office, and from Ms. Alison Dunbar for the private units. All these issues are on the table for discussion. We want to be fair to inmates. We also want to be strategic and offer sustainable solutions. Currently inmates cannot use the phones after 10:00 p.m. We are looking at the possible implementation of tablets.
(Representatives from several groups thanked Mr. Mendoza for the information about phone use and planning.)
Texas Voices: Thank you to Mr. Mendoza for the information and for the evident sincerity of his communications with us today. We suggest a post on social media by TDCJ so that families can hear his tone for themselves. His comments and attitude would be helpful and hopeful for families.
Texas CURE: Is delivery of ecomm happening on all units now?
Tx Conn: Will you consider allowing monthly ecomm spends during the pandemic?
E Johnston, TDCJ Director of Commissary Services: Ecomm just reset today. Delivery of ecomm is still a logistical problem for units on lockdown. We do have a large number of ecomms to deliver, many beyond the 5-day window we try to observe. We are following the lead of CID, Mr. Hirsh and Ms. Davis, working to deliver those orders safely.
Texas Voices: requested the email address for Mr. Hinojosa, the new Director of Parole Services… firstname.lastname@example.org
TPAA: Regarding the programs backed up for parole, we know transfers between units have started. Is there a goal for that to be accomplished? We know some FI-6s still have not been transferred.
Lorie Davis, TDCJ Director of CID: We had about 1200 inmates to transfer to begin programs. We were about half-way done last week and expect to be finished within the next two weeks.
TPAA: When a Covid vaccine becomes available, will it be available to inmates, and will they be able to either accept or refuse it?
Dr. L: Yes. It will be the same as the other vaccines currently available to inmates.
TPAA: We have a request from some inmates to be able to buy on commissary the type of masks used by staff.
Dr. L: Those masks are not medically indicated by CDC for general use. The recommendation for the general public is “face coverings.” The masks supplied to staff are still in somewhat short supply and should be reserved for health care workers and first responders.
TPAA: We know that the state is pulling back a bit on re-opening. Chain from counties was due to start today. Will that continue or stop again?
L. Davis: It will continue. We are confident our process is safe. We continue to vet and quarantine those coming from counties. We continue to monitor the situation daily and will adjust our actions as needed.
Tx Conn: The Darrington Unit trustee camp poultry workers have had no clean clothes since Friday. What is the expected procedure for that?
Bobby Lumpkin, TDCJ Direct of Agriculture, Manufacturing, and Logistics: The workers should receive clean clothes regularly. I will check on the poultry workers.
Tx Conn: Lane Murry Unit reports no Step 2 grievance forms available.
L. Davis: We monitor the supply of those forms and will send some. Mr. Dunbar:
Marvin Dunbar, TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management: I will look into it today.
Tx Conn: Smith Unit asks if religious classes can resume.
L. Davis: Our volunteer operations are not resuming. That is as big a risk as resuming visitation and we are not comfortable with that at this time.
Tx Conn: We have questions about families wanting to order educational classes, puzzle books, etc. for inmates.
L. Davis: Those things have been allowed in the past and the mail policies remain the same.
Tx Conn: (Unit name not heard) reports no cleaning supplies available.
L. Davis: I will check.
Tx Conn: Thanks to Regional Director David Blackwell. He has been very gracious and prompt in his responses to us.
L. Davis: Thank you for kind words.
Mendoza: We appreciate the family groups helping us get good information out. We ask for your help and understanding. We hope our answers have been helpful. We want to work quickly on these issues, but also in a way that will be sustainable.
Call adjourned 10:40 a.m.
Notes of Conference Call June 17, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Call convened at 10:05 a.m. by Mr. Marvin Dunbar, Director of TDCJ Administrative Review and Risk Management
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek. TIFA Ch L indicates a TIFA Chapter Leader)
Billy Lumpkin, Director of Agriculture, Manufacturing, and Logistics gave an agency update. He announced that beginning in July limited, slow-paced intake of prisoners from county will begin. They will continue ongoing protocols for dealing with virus issues, including that no active positive cases of Covid-19 will be received from counties and incoming prisoners will be quarantined in TDCJ for 14 days of observation. Limited movement of inmates within TDCJ began earlier this week, with movement for programming the priority.
Billy Hirsh, Deputy Director of CID: We have been fielding many calls from families and advocacy groups dealing with issues of units coming up from precautionary medical lockdown. There are still 26 units in that status. We monitor the units daily and make our decisions based on results of testing, both mass and symptomatic testing. We will lock down a whole unit if we are not able to deal with the virus issues on a more limited basis, such as by restricting one area of a unit.
We know that there are lots of rumors about visitation. We do discuss many options, way in advance, for any major decisions we make, but visitation is a long way off. We know some were assuming that visitation could resume at the same time as intake of new prisoners from county, but we are able to be a lot more careful about who we are taking in from counties and how we deal with them. We are not making any promises about visitation at this time.
We are not hearing as many complaints about johnnies. Mr. Dunbar and the team from ARRM are still visiting units to check on those. As units come up from precautionary lockdown we are able to re-instate hot meals, slowly, and on an altered schedule to allow for appropriate social distancing of cohort groups.
Regarding phone calls…we are having questions about the phone calls for G5 and AdSeg as units come up from lockdown. Phone use will be returning to previous rules for those folks, including that they may send an I-60 request for a phone call if they have a disciplinary record clean for 90 days; then they will be allowed a call as staff has time to do that. With more movement on the units, more staff is needed to oversee the movement of groups to and from various activities and there will be fewer available to accompany G5 and AdSeg to phone calls.
TIFA: We also have many questions regarding phone calls for those inmates, especially since visitation is still not possible. We hope better access to calls would be allowed in lieu of visits.
Texas CURE: We have a report from the Hughes Unit that Bldg 4 is still being restricted to 5-minute calls. The warden has told people that they are not able to increase the length of calls yet. And we have the same concern about needing better access to phones for G5 and AdSeg since there is no visitation. Could we possibly look at calls every 30 days instead of every 90?
Billy Hirsh: I will check on the Hughes Unit and clarify that. We can look at the issue of more calls for G5 and AdSeg but it is primarily an issue of staffing.
TPAA: Will you clarify what is supposed to happen with calls as a unit comes up from precautionary lockdown…we understood calls should be increasing from 5 minutes to 10 minutes in length; is that supposed to be just once a day? And when can we expect calls to go back to 30 minutes in length?
Billy Hirsh: We first limited calls to 5 minutes per person and allowed those calls in conjunction with movement for other activities, such as showering, to make the best use of staff needed to oversee those activities, and to provide at least some phone access to as many people as possible. Then we have been allowing calls to increase to 10 minutes as movement on the unit is increasing. We know there is increased demand for phones at this time. We also know there are some who dominate the phones if not limited and we have been trying to give access to as many as possible. As demand eases up we will slowly re-instate 30-minute calls. On some units that may be as early as next week. We are evaluating that unit by unit.
TIFA: There seems to be a lot of miscommunication regarding visitation and movement for programming. Some families are saying they have talked with people from Rehabilitation who don’t know anything about movement for programs.
Chris Carter, Deputy Director of Rehabilitation Services: We are definitely tracking those individuals who are needing programs. I think the callers have been talking to the persons making personal calls for inmates, getting messages sent between families and inmates, and those are not the people involved with programming. That’s why they are saying they don’t know anything about movement for programs.
TIFA: There are still a lot of issues with mail service at Robertson, Allred, Stringfellow, and Clements units. Mail is coming out, but is being picked up maybe twice weekly, or only irregularly. Is there an actual schedule? Is this a staffing issue?
Billy Hirsh: Mail should be picked up daily. I will check on those units.
TIFA: You have described many factors that go into deciding when a unit goes on precautionary medical lockdown and how long that lockdown needs to last. Stringfellow seems to have been down an extremely long time. Please check on what is going on there.
Bill Hirsh: We do know that Stringfellow has been deeply impacted by the virus and went on precautionary lockdown early on. We are hoping to bring the unit up soon, possibly as soon as next week. We may be able to limit ongoing restriction to certain areas of the unit. We are trying to do that more and more as possible.
TIFA Ch L: The Smith unit has been on lockdown for 69 days, 23 ½ hours a day, and now they are back to no phone access at all…phones have been turned off. And can you confirm the report of a suicide at Smith?
Billy Hirsh: I will check on the phone situation there. I do not know of a suicide there.
TIFA Ch L: We appreciated it when TDCJ stopped reporting details of a person’s charge when reporting inmate deaths from Covid, but it happened again with the notice of Mr. Garcia’s death on the 15th.
TIFA Ch L: Once an inmate has tested positive, how is it determined to allow them back into general population? Are they retested?
Chris Black-Edwards, Deputy Director of Health Services: We are following the CDC recommendation for time and symptoms as the guideline for when to declare someone cleared. That is usually 10 days from the positive result or time of testing for symptoms, once there is an improvement in symptoms and three days free of fever, they can be released from isolation.
TPAA: So is it the case that now a single new positive case does not necessarily result in the whole unit being locked down?
Billy Hirsh: We are depending on contact tracing investigations to determine the level of restriction needed for that unit. If we can safely restrict only one area we will do that. We are trying to keep staff assignments stable to limit contacts within a unit. We are doing our best to minimize having staff work in several areas of a unit or on more than one unit but there are some areas of desperate need where we have no choice. Some officers have been temporarily reassigned, some have volunteered for a week or so at a time on another unit, to help relieve staff shortages.
Prison Show: When staff moves between units like that, are they being tested or retested before returning to their previous unit?
Billy Hirsh: No; we are doing the best we can with ongoing screening of temperature, symptoms, and questions.
Prison Show: Maybe officers who work more than one unit could be restricted to areas with limited access to inmates, like towers.
TPAA: On the units that have been on lockdown for a long time, some people have accumulated a lot of property…books…that they would ordinarily be putting into property to hold for pickup at family visitation time, but they are unable to do that right now.
Billy Hirsh: They can still mail things out; we know that is an expense. Send me a list of units where that is reported as a problem and we can look at it. Depending on how big a problem it is and what the unit is, we might be able to hold items longer.
Texas CURE: Could we have some written designation so that property is not subject to being destroyed after some length of time, as is ordinarily the case with property left too long in holding?
TPAA: Will more masks be issued? Some are reporting the strings are tearing on their masks and they are being written up for not having a good mask.
Billy Hirsh: We have plenty of masks. Let us know where more are needed.
Bobby Lumpkin: We have an inventory of @800,000 masks, @600,000 of the cotton ones issued to inmates. Availability is not an issue.
TPAA: People are reporting their requests for new masks are being refused.
Billy Hirsh: The masks are treated like any other item of clothing or linen issued by TDCJ; they are turned in to laundry and new items are issued. Laundry should replace any damaged item that comes through. Masks can be picked up, laundered and replaced daily.
Prison Show: Some laundry workers are worried about being exposed to the virus on clothing coming in to their area.
Billy Hirsh: All laundry workers have PPE to wear while dealing with dirty laundry.
Prison Show: We have ongoing complaints from Luther and Polunsky units about the food, even as they are returning to more hot meals; spoiled food is being reported. Families have made complaints and inmates have written grievances. Our numbers show at least 77 reports made to officials at Luther and Polunsky about spoiled food. Now inmates are reporting retaliation because of those complaints.
Prison Show: We appreciate the efforts TDCJ has made and is making to contain the virus and slow its spread and we urge you to go slowly, slower than the rest of the state is going. As the state opens back up we are seeing a resurgence of Covid-19 cases.
Bobby Lumpkin: Yes, that is why we are moving very cautiously in restoring intake from counties and movement for programs.
Mr. Dunbar announced the next conference call for Wednesday, June 24th, at 10:00 a.m. and adjourned the call at 10:33.
Notes of Conference Call June 3, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Call convened at 10:00 a.m. by Mr. Marvin Dunbar, TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management
Roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, Texas Voices, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, The Prison Show, TPAA, and FAITH.
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek. TIFA ChL indicates a TIFA Chapter Leader)
Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff, gave the agency update, as of the close of business, Tuesday, June 2. On Day 86 of TDCJ Covid-19 response, @66,000 inmates and 21,000 staff persons have been tested for Covid-19. There are currently 4700 active positive cases of the virus among inmates, and 500 active positive cases among staff. The number of persons recovered and medically cleared is 1500 inmates and 470 staff. 44 units are currently on precautionary lockdown, with over 25,000 on medical restriction, and @4800 in medical isolation.
Kristina Hartman, Superintendent of Windham School District, reported that Windham has resumed some in-person instruction on 48 units not on precautionary lockdown. This instruction is a hybrid model, with small groups of 10 students plus an instructor meeting in person for only three hours weekly; practicing social distancing and wearing masks. Other groups rotate into the classroom on other days and students continue with distance learning on the days they are not in the classroom. Teachers and students report being very happy to be able to continue instruction.
Rene Hinojosa, Director, Rehabilitation Programs Division, reported that RPD has made over 760,000 calls to families on behalf of inmates unable to contact family during times of restricted movement on the units.
TIFA: We would like some clarification about medical restriction and the length of time that is in place. When mass testing is done and positive cases are identified, the positive cases are medically isolated and those with direct exposure to the positives are medically restricted, can other inmates in the unit be allowed to come up from restriction?
(Some clarifying of the question took place.)
Dr. Lannette Linthicum, Director of TDCJ Health Services Division: Our policy meets CDC guidelines of sending a person testing positive to medical isolation for 10 days if they are asymptomatic. If they are symptomatic, they are isolated for at least 10 days, but must get to a place of no symptoms, including at least three days without fever, before they can be released from isolation. Medical restriction is for persons who have had a high level of exposure to the positive case. We know that most persons exposed to the virus will show symptoms…if they are going to show symptoms…within five to six days of exposure, but some may not show symptoms until as late as 12-14 days after exposure. The status of precautionary lockdown is enacted based on the occurrence of positive cases on a unit or in a specific area of a unit.
TIFA: Will a unit go on precautionary lockdown for a single case or a cluster of cases?
Dr. L: There are many factors considered, such as whether or not we are looking at the first occurrence of the virus on a unit, multiple cases appearing at once, or daily appearance of cases on a unit.
TIFA: To further clarify my question: If a unit is already on precautionary lockdown; mass testing is done; results are received; the known positives and their direct exposures are taken away to medical isolation and medical restriction, could the rest of that unit come up from their lockdown?
Dr. L: If we are able to that; available space and other logistics play a part.
Lorie Davis, Director of TDCJ’s Correctional Institutions Division: We are having ongoing meetings about altering protocols as we go. We are making those decisions based on how we can make changes while moving forward safely. We are just now receiving the full data from individual units as mass testing is completed. We are committed to evaluating units individually.
TIFA: Thank you. We do have some concerns being expressed about movement on units with positive cases, such as SSIs distributing meals in areas with and without positive cases.
TIFA: There is a recent article by Mark Levin dealing with problems of persons kept in solitary confinement, focusing especially on programming, phone calls, and commissary. Those are all concerns for our inmates on various levels of movement restriction during the Covid-19 crisis. We agree with other groups that we saw some improvement in the quality of the johnny sacks early on, but now things seems to be deteriorating again. Mr. Hirsh had previously said a schedule was being drawn up to make sure some of the meal enhancements would be present in the johnnies each week. Was such a schedule come into practice?
Lorie Davis: We are continuing to order those extra items weekly, including fresh fruits and vegetables, and to deliver them to the units on lockdown until this season of johnnies is done.
TIFA: And we are continuing to monitor the johnnies.
TIFA ChL: Yes, we were thankful for some improvement on the the johnnies, but, for example, Middleton Unit reports moldy food, Clements and Hughes also say they are back to mainly small servings of peanut butter on smashed and/or moldy bread.
TIFA: The Levin article addressed the importance of inmates having access to instructional programs. We have talked about the many inmates having to wait for FI-5 and FI-6 programs. We know that there is a provision whereby the Board of Pardons and Parole can revote if there is difficulty with accessibility of programs. Is there any movement to have that happen for these people waiting?
Rene Hinojosa, Director, Rehabilitation Programs Division: There is communication between RPD and BPP. We do ask them to revisit votes. We have been doing some of this throughout the virus crisis. I do not have exact numbers in front of me, but that is happening.
TIFA: Can alternate programs be made available for these folks? Some have been waiting since mid-2019.
Rene Hinojosa: I know for sure some have been waiting since January. We are looking at different ways to provide the programs at different units. We do not have a solid plan to announce yet.
TIFA: We know that the process got behind because of Hurrican Harvey, and is now more behind because of Covid-19; we are concerned that the whole process just gets more and more behind.
Rene Hinojosa: The agency and the BPP want to make sure inmates complete these programs because we believe they increase their chances of success in the parole process.
TIFA: We affirm the validity of the programs; it is a fine balance between the need for the programs to be completed and the need to get people moving.
TIFA: We appreciated the efforts to get at least 5-minute phone calls in place for the units on precautionary lockdown. As the lockdowns drag on, there is more information that needs to be exchanged, more family news to communicate; could we have a new plan to give more call time while still honoring social distancing?
Lorie Davis: We are studying our data to decide how to be resume a more normal schedule of activity. We are trying to find solutions to increase the out-of-cell time and phone time. Nobody wants longer calls available more than I do, but we are trying to keep people safe and are trying to make good decisions based on safety.
Dr. L: Let me remind the family groups…with this virus we have a LOT of people who are asymptomatic. We have a number of both staff and inmates testing positive over 28 days or more. The CDC says we don’t know at this time if these people are still shedding virus, if they are still infectious, or not. The current antibody tests are somewhat unreliable and are not being used to make medical decisions. We are not making policies to be punitive, but to protect. We have many, many vulnerable inmates. For example, over 20,000 elderly inmates, 9000 diabetics, a fairly large number taking immunosuppressant drugs, some because of organ transplants…we have inmates with kidney, liver, even heart and lung transplants…and other difficult medical conditions.
TIFA: Thanks for that information. We do understand. My personal background is in public health/infectious diseases, but it is helpful to get information out about how things can be improved to our families and inmates…to keep giving them hope of progress.
Dr. L: As the whole country begins to open up again, we are also looking at how we can do that, but we must be safe.
TIFA ChL: We continue to have reports that officers fail to wear masks consistently, but on some units write up inmates for not wearing masks. For example, at Coffield, a Captain told inmates being written up in the chow hall, “If you report my officers, I’ll write you up.” My loved one says officers without masks happens so often he’s pretty much stopped reporting it. Do you have plans to follow up on the problem of COs who do not wear masks? Are they reprimanded? Does a note go into their files? Is it “3 strikes and you’re out?” Is it handled differently on different units? What should we expect to see?
Lorie Davis: If you have specific names, we will follow up. We continue to reinforce to wardens that staff are to wear masks at all times. Our leadership style is to investigate legitimate complaints. We discuss the importance of an issue and restate our expectations. If necessary, we move up the scale of disciplinary actions. I have been in this business for 31 years, and I know not everyone follows directions, but we will doggedly repeat directives and address issues to reinforce expectations.
Prison Show: Where are masks being supplied from? We have received reports that not all units have masks, and that there are still units without sufficient soap or masks, and with no hand sanitizer available for areas without hand-washing capabilities.
Lorie Davis: Let us know specific units. All inmates should have cotton masks, and some have the N95 masks.
Bobby Lumpkin, Director of Agribusiness, Manufacturing and Logistics: Our inventory is strong for all those items.
Prison Show: I will check our mail and see where those reports are coming from. I know some of those issues were reported previously from Luther Unit.
Lorie Davis: Yes, we did do an investigation at Luther Unit. I apologize that I did not get to the phone with the results of that investigation. Send me an email and I will have Deputy Director Werner contact you directly.
TPAA: The main question our people are having is what long-term plan TDCJ has for dealing with so many positive cases. The prolonged lockdowns are very difficult for people inside and outside to deal with.
Jason Clark: We have just come out of a very long meeting dealing with that issue. We have to consider all the data. In about three weeks we should have all our testing data. Those results will determine what we do. We are actively working to develop plans for our next steps. I can tell you that whatever we do will be in a very thoughtful, phased-in manner.
TPAA: Are pill windows running on the units on lockdown?
Dr. L. and Lorie Davis both provided input to this answer: If the pill line is not running on a unit, medications are being delivered to cells by CNAs, or LVNs, someone of the appropriate level of qualified medical staff. At the beginning of the medical lockdowns, we looked at our formulary and changed many routine items to KOP status. There are some medications which have to be administered by staff, or observed by staff. Those are delivered if the inmate cannot go to pill line. If there are problems on specific units, let us know.
TPAA: On several units when inmates request grievance forms, they are repeatedly told there are none.
Lorie Davis: We need units, dorms. We have some ways to validate that, but need details to address it effectively.
TPAA: Is employee screening continuing at units that have no positive cases?
Lorie Davis: Yes.
TPAA: We will send you a list of reports from units that say that is not happening consistently.
TPAA: Please clarify some things concerning mass testing: If guys have been living together and one tests positive and one negative, are they now separated?
Lorie Davis: Yes…the positive goes to isolation and the one with direct exposure goes to medical restriction.
TPAA: Please confirm when the 14 days of restriction/observation start.
Dr. L: It starts from the last exposure to the indexed case.
TPAA: Will you consider restoring the availability of Ecomm for locked down units?
Lorie Davis: We are looking at all aspects of our protocols and we are working on commissary services.
Texas CURE: Following up on a question from last time about rescue inhalers, some inmates report they have received no new inhalers for six weeks. On some units they are being told none are available and that there are problems with the contract.
Dr. L: Our contract is in good order and our supply is ample. The inhalers have 25 metered doses, so we know how long they should last. There is some misuse of inhalers.
Texas CURE: We have a report of four or five asthmatics on one unit not being provided adequate inhalers.
Dr. L: Get specific names to me or to Mr. Dunbar.
Texas CURE: Polunsky Unit reports JPays being delivered to wrong cells, in some cases because inmates are delivering mail late at night while people are sleeping. Should this be reported to the mail room? To the shift captain?
Lorie Davis: To the shift captain and to the warden
Texas CURE: Some are hearing that TDCJ has approved tablets, is just waiting on a vendor to supply, and that email service will be free.
Clark: That is a rumor. It is not happening.
Texas CURE: We had heard that the list of locked down units which were allowing 5-minute phone calls would be posted with the new website Covid-19 data, but we haven’t found that. Could it be provided at least weekly?
Clark: Maybe we can update that on the weekly calls, or in an email.
FAITH: We have a report that Jester 3 has not allowed any calls in over 20 days, not even the 5-minute calls. Are those not mandatory?
Lorie Davis: We have allowed 5-minute calls for locked down areas where it has been deemed safe to do so. There are a variety of factors to consider.
Mr. Dunbar adjourned the call at 10:50 after announcing the next conference call for Wednesday, June 10.
Notes of Conference Call May 27, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler. Some questions and responses from the call have been moved in this summary to be nearer related items.
Call convened at 10:00 a.m. by Mr. Marvin Dunbar, TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management
Roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, Texas Voices, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, The Prison Show, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, and FAITH.
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek.) John Werner, Deputy Director of Support Operations for TDCJ’s Correctional Institutions Division, Chris Black-Edwards, Deputy Director of TDCJ Health Service Division, Christopher Carter, Deputy Director, Rehabilitation Programs Division
Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff, gave the agency update, as of the close of business, Tuesday, May 26. On Day 80 of TDCJ Covid-19 response, 3851 inmates and 847 employees have now tested positive for Covid-19. 38 units are currently on precautionary lockdown, with over 18,000 on medical restriction. 1150 inmates and 290 employees have recovered and been medically cleared. About 75,000 tests have been administered, including the mass testing being done. The labs are catching up and those results are beginning to come in quickly… 8 or 9 thousand per day.
Our early projections were that the number of hospitalizations for the virus would continue to rise for some time, but we are now seeing a flattening of that statistic, which indicates that our measures are being effective. There are currently 79 inmates and 3 staff persons hospitalized for Covid-19.
Mr. Dunbar called on representatives of participating groups for questions.
TIFA: We are trying to help manage families’ expectations, so some of our questions and comments may seem redundant. We continue to have complaints about the medical lockdowns and johnny sacks, so we want to get good info into the call notes, which are widely distributed to families and to inmates.
TIFA: With regard to mass testing procedures, specifically at the Wynne Unit, they were on precautionary lockdown for two weeks after the testing, awaiting test results. When the tests results are returned and there is a positive and they have already been locked down for two weeks with no new symptoms how are those cases being handled.
CID: It is the case that some results were delayed. (As you’ve heard, that time is improving.) If they have been locked down for two weeks awaiting test results, we are evaluating those asymptomatic positives within that tested group with the medical group responsible for that unit…UTMB or TTU…to decide whether and when to clear those cases and move forward.
TIFA: When a person is asymptomatic but tests positive through the mass testing, how is that person handled?
Health Services Division: Out of an abundance of caution, those persons are being isolated. They spend 14 days in isolation, being monitored to see if they develop symptoms. If they do, the 14-day observation/isolation period starts over, as we watch to see if symptoms worsen. If they do not develop symptoms they are released back to their area. The 14-day period for an asymptomatic person begins the day they are tested.
TPAA: If during mass testing an inmate refuses testing, and so is presumed to be positive and isolated, if the unit has just come up off lockdown because of another previous positive test result, will the unit go back on lockdown because of the presumed positive of the one refusing to test?
CID: At this time we have no instances where a precautionary lockdown has been caused by a refusal to test. There have always been other known positives to trigger the lockdown in that area. We will be attentive to that possibility and evaluate the situation if it occurs.
TPAA: Could a refusal to test extend a lockdown time?
CID: If the person refusing is symptomatic, yes; they would be monitored in isolation for those symptoms even without a test and persons exposed to them would be medically restricted until symptoms were cleared.
TPAA: Would that person be isolated with other known positive cases?
CID: They would be medically restricted but not with known positives.
TIFA: If only 1 or 2 persons on a wing test positive but they are asymptomatic, they will be placed in isolation. Could the whole wing or dorm left behind come off lockdown so they can have access to phones, commissary and rec?
Clark: We are still learning and considering what are the best practices for all these situations. We are considering that possibility, but we are not ready to share a comprehensive plan for dealing with every eventuality yet.
TIFA: As you consider how to deal with that scenario, please consider at least restoring regular phone privileges to inmates. Phone calls help so much in relieving stress and anxiety for inmates and for families. Please place that at the top of your priorities.
TIFA: Since there are different entities dealing with the mass testing and the symptomatic testing, there has been some confusion about the HIPAA forms needed for families to receive information about loved ones’ care and virus status. We understand that for the mass testing, inmates are not being prompted to get a HIPAA filed if they don’t have one current; that they will receive a letter about their results and it will be their responsibility to inform family.
FAITH: Are there two different HIPAA forms, one specifically for Covid-19 information? The units served by TTU have declined to release info to families who did not have a “Covid specific HIPPA form” on file.
Health Services Division: Director of Nursing Myra Walker has been communicating with medical personnel over those units today, to clarify that there is only one HIPPA form.
FAITH: At the Michael Unit, where mass testing has been done and inmates have received letters about their Covid-19 status, the results of those tests is not showing up in inmate medical files when family members call the medical hotlines. What is the reason for that?
Clark: Because of the mass testing, there are now over 30,000 lab results being released to UTMB and TTU that have to be logged into patient records. Be patient with them please.
TIFA: Since the weather is getting hotter, we are getting letters from inmates wanting to know how to access respite areas on units on precautionary lockdown.
CID and Clark: There will be opportunities for respite. It is difficult to provide and comply with social distancing requirements. The medical and heat status of each unit is being taken into account, as well as the layout and logistics of movement on a unit. We are also taking care not to co-mingle inmates in respite with others of a different level of virus exposure and have to take into consideration the social distancing.
TIFA: We appreciate the efforts at providing more variety in the johnny sacks, however many units report no improvement seen in the quality of those meals; specifically many have not seen the promised fruits, vegetables, or other items described in previous reports. Again, for the purpose of managing expectations, can you tell us when all units could expect to see those additions and improvements?
CID: There are deliveries of fruits and vegetables expected at all locked down units today and tomorrow. They are receiving apples, oranges, cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots. We are building the schedule now to provide at least something from that list to everyone every day.
TIFA: Would it be possible to share that planned schedule with us?
CID: I will check and will follow up with you later.
TIFA: At Stringfellow Unit, they received the onions and raw corn in some johnnies, so they will be glad to hear about the fruits and vegetables coming. They are also having issues with mail…we have reports of people receiving empty envelopes or letters with pages missing. It feels like some mail is being censored.
CID: I will follow up with them.
TIFA: This time last week we were told water was being restored to Smith Unit, but over the weekend there were still reports of no water there.
CID: Yes, the Canadian River Water Authority has had trouble restoring adequate water pressure. We expect full restoration of service soon.
TIFA: Area 7G of Michael Unit reports a power outage this morning.
CID: I will check with facilities management.
TIFA: Could we look at getting some more TV channels up to help with boredom during the medical lockdowns? I understand the cable bill is paid for from recreational funds. Maybe this is a question for Windham Superintendent Hartman?
Clark: It seems she is not on the call. I will check.
(After the call, Jennifer had some interaction with Windham Superintendent Kristina Hartman: Kristina asked which channels we were thinking about and we shared National Geographic and History. Her reply was “Good choices. We will look into it. Also, are you aware that Windham is returning at units without med restrictions June 1 for small group instruction with social distancing and masks? This aligns with TEA guidance and the Governor’s amended order. We will follow TDCJ screening protocols and temp checks.”)
TIFA: Is there any improvement in providing access to required parole programming for inmates approved for parole but awaiting programs?
Rehab: Inmates are completing those programs.
TIFA: Those that are FI-5s and FI-6s are getting programming?
Clark: To clarify, that is if they have reached the date for their programming to start and if they are on a unit where the needed programming is offered. No inter-unit transfers are being done for program purposes, only for medical issues.
TIFA: Who sets the dates for programming to start…TDCJ Parole Division or Bureau of Paroles and Pardons?
Clark and Rehab: BPP
TPAA: Since much of the current programming is being done through packets and not in class settings, why can’t inmates waiting for a move to start programming go ahead and start the programs by distance learning from their current location?
Rehab: There is actual interaction by staff and students in that programming. Packets are turned in daily and reviewed by staff who give feedback and return them. Staff is actively engaged with those students; it’s not just a matter of turning in papers.
Texas CURE: We are receiving reports of inmates requesting medical attention that is not Covid-19 related getting the canned response that only emergency medical issues are being seen at this time but there seems to be no assessment of whether or not the problem is in fact a critical issue. Who is reviewing those requests on each unit? What about post-op follow-ups?
Health Services Division: A licensed staff nurse reviews all requests for medical attention. They are looking for specific things to decide whether an inmate will be seen at this time….certainly the Covid or flu-like symptoms are a flag; also reports of different types of pain, or a change in condition or symptoms for chronic medical issues. Routine follow-up care with no change of symptoms reported, or request for medication refills, will not result in a visit to medical. Refill requests may be submitted and can be honored without a visit. Post-op follow-up visits should have already been scheduled and should not need a request. If you have specific units where that is not happening, call the medical hotline.
Texas CURE: Some requests for refills of rescue inhalers are being returned with a stamped reply that indicates the requests will not be filled and that there are not sufficient inhalers in stock. Is TDCJ out of inhalers?
Health Services Division: There was a nation-wide shortage of inhalers at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. That has been resolved. Our pharmacy department says we have adequate stock. Please let us know if you have specific instances of denial on a unit. These items are NOT being automatically refilled, but requests are being honored. No appointments for conditions warranting the use of inhalers are being given unless there is a change in symptoms or symptom severity to report.
TPAA: Will persons refusing testing be reported in the website statistics?
Clark: They would show up as one in medical isolation.
TPAA: Will the website show when a unit has completed mass testing?
Clark: “Completed” is a difficult concept. Testing could be repeated if more symptoms appear. Check the website for a unit’s status regarding precautionary lockdown.
TPAA: Will you be returning the statistic for “pending tests” to the website?
Clark: With the mass testing it has become increasingly challenging to manage the various statistics on the website. We are choosing to focus on the numbers of actual positive results received.
Prison Show: We do notice some discrepancies in numbers reported here and what we see on the website. Would you comment on that?
Clark: We are dealing with hundreds and thousands of numbers daily. There are hours and hours of work involved in recording and updating that information every day. We are doing our best to be transparent with our numbers, while acknowledging that we are human. We are not trying to “hide the ball,” but the task is challenging. One example of discrepancy may be the number of positives reported… the difference between positive tests received and the numbers of current positive patients, not medically cleared. We have to back those individuals out of one category while keeping them in another.
Prison Show: We do appreciate your efforts and your level of success in slowing the spread of the virus. Kudos to TDCJ that about half the units still have no positive cases of Covid-19.
Clark: Thanks for the affirmation. We are doing all we can here.
TPAA: Are the numbers being reported of persons “recovered and medically cleared” based on retesting or on observation and reported symptoms?
Health Services Division: We are doing time-based clearance, following CDC guidelines, but increasing the time from 10 to 14 days from last presentation of symptoms or onset of symptoms, including 3 days without fever.
TPAA: Is any retesting being done?
Health Services Division: Those who have been hospitalized may be retested by the hospitals but retesting those with milder symptoms, on the units, is rare.
FAITH: I saw on my local news today that nearly half of Covid-19 tests are being discovered to be invalid, so some are recommending a second test for persons who have been tested.
Health Services Division: That report referred to “Abbott Labs Rapid Response Tests.” That brand has not been used by TDCJ.
TPAA: We were told about the Covid-19 recovery area set up at Jester 1. Now we have reports of chain buses coming through this week to move those persons.
CID: Yes, those in convalescent status at Jester have started returning to their home units. 22 inmates yesterday and another 22 today are returning to Beto Unit.
TPAA: Is there any other chaining going on, for example on bench warrants to county?
CID: Some counties want them and some don’t. Some counties are picking people up from their home units for bench warrants.
Prison Show: We have reports that at the Luther Unit inmates are not receiving any soap except two bars when taken to shower. There are no hand-sanitizing provisions or soap provided at other areas for washing hands. Inmates there also report the difficulty of social distancing in the dayroom but cases being given for refusals to crowd up near others in the area where social distancing is all but impossible.
CID: I will talk with Luther. There should be no shortage of soap.
Prison Show: I have to say I am a little concerned about those recovered inmates being returned to the Beto hotspot!
TIFA Chapter Leader: As Governor Abbott is in the process of re-opening businesses and public places in the state, can you tell us TDCJ’s expected process for that?
Clark: Our situation is unique. We are more like a nursing home than an open business. We are engaged in planning for next steps. We continue to evaluate the incidence of disease in our agency and to watch our numbers. We are formulating a phase-in plan for whatever the “new normal” turns out to be. We are looking for a good flattening of our curve before we can consider things like visitation, intakes, transfers, etc.
The call was adjourned by Jason Clark at 10:50 after announcing the next call for next week.
Notes of Conference Call May 20, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler. Some questions and responses from the call have been reported in a different order than they occurred on the call.
Roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, and FAITH.
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek.)
Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff, gave the agency update, as of the close of business, Tuesday, May 19. On Day 73 of TDCJ Covid-19 response, 2214 inmates and 742 employees have now tested positive for Covid-19. 39 units are currently on precautionary lockdown, with about 16,000 on medical restriction. 457 inmates have recovered and been medically cleared.
You have been hearing about our mass testing efforts. So far we have tested 38,000 inmates and 11,000 employees. We received 1600 results yesterday and expect to receive 1200 more today.
TIFA: Are officers who test positive required to do the 14-day quarantine?
Hirsh: Not just officers but any employee who tests positive is required to quarantine at home for 14 days.
TIFA: Are you having staffing issues because of officers in quarantine?
Hirsh: We are having to compensate in some areas. We have a plan of rotation. We do expect more difficulty if many more test positive.
TIFA: Are you transferring inmates who have tested positive but are asymptomatic…specifically to Scott Unit?
Hirsh: We have no intention to do that. I have no knowledge of that happening. No. The only transfers happening right now are for medical treatment.
TIFA: Is the death information on the TDCJ website up to date? There have been no additions in about a week. If so, that is good news…congratulations.
Clark: I will check to make sure. We do have 32 deaths so far attributed to Covid-19 and 27 autopsies pending.
TPAA: Please clarify if “mass testing” and “strike team testing” refer to different testing techniques and whether the results of those tests will be posted on the website.
Clark: “Strike team testing” and “mass testing” refer to the same thing. The strike teams are the trained observers who take the testing materials to the units and oversee the administration of the mass testing. Those tests are self-administered. The person coughs into their arm 3-5 times; opens the sealed kit of testing items; takes the sterile swab and swabs inside the mouth… cheek, top of the mouth, under the tongue, for 20-30 seconds; places the swab in the vial provided in the kit, reseals the packet and turns it in. The website is still being redesigned. Probably today or tomorrow there will be a new look for the Covid-19 reporting; there will be more information to be seen. When we get results from these tests we will post that.
TPAA: How are you handling inmates who test positive using the new testing?
Billy Hirsh, Deputy Director of CID: We are dealing with them as with any other inmate who has tested positive so far. Anyone with a positive test is isolated and those around them are placed on medical restriction. We hope and pray we can contain the virus to minimal spread. We try to get those who test positive but are symptomatic together. They would receive the same twice-daily med checks as others with positive results.
TPAA: So if one person on a pod is asymptomatic but tests positive, the whole pod goes on medical restriction?
TPAA: Do we expect that all units will eventually be tested?
Clark: We expect to test at least 110,000 inmates and staff. We are being strategic in our testing and prioritizing hotspots. We will expand testing as needed.
TPAA: If an inmate declines the test they are isolated?
Hirsh: Yes, if they decline we have to assume that they are dangerous, since we can’t show otherwise, and they are placed on 14-day quarantine for the safety of others.
TPAA: Would they be quarantined with others who have tested positive?
Hirsh: Probably on the same cell block, the area we have set apart for isolation on that unit. If possible they would be separated from those known for sure to be positive by an empty cell.
TPAA: We are getting complaints about there being no water on Smith Unit.
Hirsh: We received a message today from the water authority in that area that the line has been fixed. As soon as it is tested safe for drinking, water will be turned back on for the unit. We have had plenty of portapotties and drinking water on site and have even sent a 4-day supply of bottled water to the unit just in case. We thank the Facilities Department for helping with those logistics. We expect to be up again within a few hours.
Other groups on the call had no questions. Mr. Dunbar adjourned the call at 10:16, after announcing the next for Wednesday, May 27, at 10:00 a.m.
Notes of Conference Call May 15, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler.
Roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, and FAITH.
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek.)
Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff, gave the agency update, as of the close of business, Thursday, May 14. On Day 68 of TDCJ Covid-19 response, 1798 inmates and 697 employees have now tested positive for Covid-19. 38 units are currently on precautionary lockdown, with over 21,000 on medical restriction. 452 inmates have recovered and been medically cleared, as have 116 employees.
Clark: You have heard about our enhanced testing capabilities. We started new mass testing of staff and inmates this week, using the new saliva test. It is a self- administered test. The person waits 20 minutes after eating or drinking, coughs three times, opens a sterile swab and swabs inside the mouth 20-30 seconds, including the cheek and under the tongue. The swab is placed into a vial with a small amount of liquid. This is the same testing currently being used in Los Angeles and by the Department of Defense. It is quick and easy and we have been receiving a positive response from the people being tested with it. Over 1300 employees and @5500 inmates have already been tested. Those numbers will be much higher after today’s round of testing. When we get information back from these tests we will relay the results.
We are redesigning our website. That was put up very quickly to provide information to the public in the beginning of the virus crisis, but there will be a new appearance to the dashboard, probably next week.
Lorie Davis, Director of CID: We continue to monitor the johnny meals. We have procured some fresh fruits and vegetables…especially broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower which can be served raw. We are researching other meal preparation options. We have considered some prepackaged options and continue to look for appropriate items. We have procured cartons of milk, pizzas, and hotpockets for increased variety in the meals. Oversight of johnny preparation by ARRM staff continues and we are calling wardens unexpectedly, sending them into their housing areas to facetime with us on the conditions and contents of the johnnies on their units. We are testing delivery of hot meals on some units. We have procured lids for our cups and have been sending pudding out with some meals. We are committed to continued monitoring of the meals being served to those on lockdowns.
Mr. Dunbar invited questions from advocacy groups to agency directors on the call.
TIFA: We have been hearing reports about the fresh fruit and better quality of johnnies on some units. Thank you. We are still concerned about the quality assurance procedures and the need to prevent thefts of items from the sacks as they are being delivered. Are the sacks sealed?
Davis: Preparers are fed before they work on the sacks, so that cuts down on theft somewhat. The inmates preparing meals are supervised by COs. The sacks are not vacuum sealed as that would be difficult to open. Most meals are prepared by COs because of the limitations on movement on the locked down units.
TIFA: Regarding the mass testing…If an inmate refuses testing, will there be disciplinary action, or will that person automatically be placed in isolation for 14 days?
Davis: No one is forced to accept testing. A person has a right to refuse medical care or treatment. We have no plans to write cases for that. Whether or not the person would be isolated would depend on results of other testing in the area, but we are not necessarily quarantining those who refuse. We have had some discussion of that but that is not happening at this time. If the area around that person is placed on medical restriction, then they would be as well.
TIFA: On the subject of precautionary lockdown, medical restriction, and medical isolation, there was some confusion on the last call. Dr. Linthicum said precautionary lockdown would be for a cluster of cases or several cases on a unit. The website says a unit will go on precautionary lockdown if there is only one positive test of inmate or employee on the unit.
Davis: It will be done for only one case. If there is an individual medically isolated on a unit, because they have likely symptoms of the virus and are awaiting test results, others that have been exposed to them will be placed on medical restriction. Those events are what trigger a precautionary lockdown for the whole unit.
TIFA: On the unit, there is no difference in the experience of the persons under medical restriction and all those on precautionary lockdown, as far as no commissary, limited phone access…?
Dr. Lannette Linthicum, Director of TDCJ Health Services: Precautionary lockdown is the equivalent of self-isolation on the outside…our attempt at social distancing. Persons on medical restriction are placed there because of a medical evaluation and they have daily rounds by health care staff.
TIFA: Right now, when a new positive case shows up on a unit and goes to medical isolation, probably from a previously medically restricted area, the whole unit has their precautionary lockdown extended another 14 days. Could the inmates in the larger group, who have not been under medial restriction be allowed to have some more freedom of movement on the unit…for commissary and phone use for example?
Dr. L: It depends on the location of the person who tests positive and the results of our contact tracing.
TIFA: According to the website those additional positive tests are resulting in extended lockdown for the whole unit.
Davis: It can.
TiFA: Would you consider not keeping a whole unit down when the new cases are showing up in areas that have already been previously medically restricted? We are concerned that with the numbers of asymptomatic positive cases showing up in the new mass testing, the whole system will just be completely locked down.
Dr. L: Please remember that those persons who are positive but asymptomatic are still shedding virus and are highly contagious. The precautionary lockdowns are not punitive but protective. Please see our updated Covid-19 policy on the website. It is document number 14.52, under Correctional Managed Healthcare. (Type 14.52 in the TDCJ website search bar.) This is the 5th revision of the document as we continue to update it, as the national CDC guidelines continue to change. For instance, they have recently extended the recommendation for medical isolation after positive test results from 7 days to 10 days, including 3 days with no fever.
TIFA: Regarding heat issues, how can inmates purchase fans without access to commissary?
Davis: Inmates can submit an I-60 to request a fan purchase and it will be delivered to them as a special purchase.
TIFA: Can ecomms ordered before a precautionary lockdown began to be delivered, or will those orders stay in limbo?
Eric Johnston, Director of TDCJ Commissary Services: We have begun trying to deliver those ecomms at the same time the limited lockdown spends are being delivered.
TIFA: Are there commissary shortages anywhere?
Johnston: We have over 600 items. Do you have a specific concern? Our supplies of soups, water, and toilet paper are good. Where we have shortages of items on a unit we are trying to move inventory between units to cover that.
TIFA: Mr. Hinojosa, you said that in May you would be re-evaluating the status of FI 4 and 5 classes.
Rene Hinojosa, Director of Rehabilitation Services: On units not on precautionary lockdown, those courses continue to be offered with in-cell instruction and small groups of less than 10. For units on precautionary lockdown, there is in-cell instruction only. Regarding those who need new programs, there will be no unit transfers.
TIFA: We were told there would be no disciplinary hearings during the Covid-19 crisis. What about those who need reviews of line classes for parole?
Davis: That would be UCC hearings, not disciplinary hearings. Those are continuing in some form on most units. We are running all we can, some in person, others in absentia. The unit classification officers are working with the wardens.
Texas CURE: Some inmates were caught at incoming transfer units at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis and have not been able to get set up with the Offender Telephone System. Is there any possibility of getting them registered for phone use?
Davis: We are using dial-up phone service for some of those inmates, taking them out individually. The chaplains’ calls are also continuing.
TPAA: Some inmates who are scheduled for release have had their phone and commissary access turned off, but are now on precautionary lockdown or other restriction. Could they be re-instated?
Davis: We need names to look at those on a case-by-case basis.
TPAA: Just comments…Pack Unit reports COs not wearing masks and not changing gloves between tasks. Some units report inmates being threatened with retaliation because of mail with Covid-19 information coming in.
Davis: I need specifics. I will check but there is no rule against that.
TPAA: On units with restricted movement, how are the inmates in 1-man cells with a shower in the cell being allowed to make phone calls?
Davis: Those inmates are being escorted to the phones as time allows.
TPAA: Could we have a commissary cart to deliver regular commissary to the areas on lockdown?
Davis: We have done that in some areas. Beginning about 2-3 weeks ago, after the correspondence and hygiene spend, we went through and did a food spend.
TPAA: We are seeing some improvements and have some good comments to make. I will send a list of units.
Davis: Thank you. We like to recognize good work.
Texas Voices: Thanks for your work on the johnny sacks. It means a lot.
TCJC: Are the self-addressed, pre-stamped envelopes allowed only for religious organizations, or can advocacy groups do that as well?
Davis: I’m pretty sure that is not allowed. I’ll check.
Mr. Dunbar adjourned the call @10:30 a.m. with the announcement that the next conference call will be next Wednesday. (The conference calls are expected to happen only once per week going forward.)
Notes of Conference Call May 8, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler. Some items have been moved out of chronological order to be near related issues in the summary.
Roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, The Prison Show, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, and FAITH.
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Staffer Sharon McKinney; TIFA CH L indicates one of the chapter leaders on the call.)
Oscar Mendoza, Deputy Executive Director of TDCJ gave the agency update, as of the close of business, Thursday, May 7. On Day 61 of TDCJ Covid-19 response, 1379 inmates and 535 employees have now tested positive for Covid-19. 40 units are currently on precautionary lockdown. We have many agency directors on the line. Let’s go straight to questions.
Texas CURE: Could we have the list of units now being allowed to make the 5-minute phone calls with showers?
Lorie Davis: I will text for that list to be brought to me. It includes 23 units.
FAITH: What are the protocols for shower sanitizing in areas with inmates who have tested positive for the virus?
Davis: Anyone who has tested positive has been removed from general population. They have been isolated alone if possible or in groups of other positives. They may be showering alone or with a group of other who have tested positive. Showers are being cleaned between uses in both cases.
TIFA: Since we see one third of the inmate deaths from Covid—19 are from the Wynne Unit, are you doing mass testing there?
Jason Clark, Chief of Staff: We are trying to remain flexible and be responsive to needs that arrive. We are looking at all areas, including Wynne. (This question was repeated, twice, later in the call, and received basically the same response.)
TIFA Ch L: Two guards from Powledge Unit have told inmates they have also been working at Beto and Telford. Now there is a positive case of Covid in a staff member at Powledge.
Davis: We do have some COs working at more than one unit. We perform the same screening at all units. We feel that our process is as safe as it can be at this time. We are dealing with some shortages of staff.
TIFA Ch L: Can you tell us if the staff person at Powledge is a CO, medical person, or what kind of staff?
(Ms. Davis contacted staff to get this info and reported later in the call that it was a CO.)
TIFA Ch L: I have a list of comments, problems reported from several units. Darrington is said to be administering tests only when a person shows a temperature of 103 or higher. Johnston Unit says many guards are not wearing masks. Hughes Unit says inmates are being forced to wear the masks while in their cubicles. Lychner Unit reports assistant warden and many COs not wearing masks.
TIFA Ch L: Please describe the process of release for inmates going to halfway houses.
April Zamora, Director of Re-Entry Services: They are provided with masks and go through our standard release screening. Some are being picked up by the contract staff from the halfway house, some are making a short bus ride.
TIFA Ch L: Are they still being allowed to leave from units that have positive cases?
Zamora: Yes, if they are asymptomatic, have not been recently in a medically restricted area, and have no known exposure to the virus.
TIFA Ch L: When a person has a release date and is ready to come home from a unit with positive cases what is your list of safe protocols for them to be released?
Brian Collier: If a person is under medical isolation or medical restriction, they will not be released until they are cleared. They will be given masks; temperature and other medical screening will be done.
TIFA Ch L: We have a person in this situation, who has no symptoms himself but is on a unit where medical restriction is starting over again today, for another 14 days.
Collier: We are releasing people who have been cleared from those units but we are under obligation not to release anyone into the community unless we can say they are cleared.
TIFA Ch L: Could the family say they will take the responsibility?
Collier: Not at this time.
TIFA Ch L: When will regular medical trips to Hospital Galveston resume? We have an inmate waiting for a hernia repair.
Davis: We are continuing to do transfers for any appointment deemed medically necessary by the medical personnel on the unit, in consultation with our doctors. The situation described must not be considered urgent at this time. We are monitoring cases like that to make sure they are receiving an adequate level of care wherever they are located.
TIFA Ch L: So how is it decided what is medically necessary?
Davis: We defer to our medical experts on questions of the needed level of care.
Chris Black-Edwards, Deputy Director of Health Services: Medical needs may be urgent, emergent, or non-urgent. Those not deemed urgent are being asked to wait for further treatment. They are being monitored on their current unit and if the situation elevates they will be transferred as needed.
TCJC: Is Stage 2 cancer chemotherapy treatment not considered essential?
Black-Edwards: That should be continuing. Please forward specific details for investigation if it is not.
TIFA Ch L: We’d like to report that we still have JPays being delayed on many units.
TIFA Ch L: Inmates on lockdown, especially those that have been down for a long time, are getting stir-crazy. Are you planning to give them any rec time…maybe in small groups of five or so?
Davis: We are aware. We make our decisions on a unit-by-unit basis, with safety as our primary concern.
TIFA Ch L: Thanks for these calls and for the improvements we are seeing in the johnnies on some units. However, there are still many reports of frozen items, moldy items, PBJ sandwiches with barely any filling, etc. We appreciate what you are doing at the command center level, but there are too many units where the directives are not being carried out at the bottom level. (Improvements as well as ongoing problems were reiterated by several other callers.)
Davis: We are continuing to monitor the johnnies in several ways, even face-timing with wardens as they are in their kitchens, and the ARRM team continues to make in-person visits to unit kitchens. We have investigated, and will continue to investigate, every grievance written about johnnies.
Brian Collier, TDCJ Executive Director: Please send emails about specific units with complaints about johnnies.
TIFA Ch L: Where should we send those emails? We want to be considerate and also targeted with our reports.
Brian Collier: All our directors are receiving emails. I’m receiving emails. We are answering them; we are working them; we will get a problem to the right person to deal with it.
TIFA Ch L: We appreciate the special commissary runs for those units on precautionary lockdown, and the five-minute phone calls where those are happening. However, there are still problems with mail running extremely slowly on some units. I received a letter from Lopez Unit which was dated inside two weeks before the postmark.
TIFA Ch L: When will the results of the targeted testing at Wynne Unit be posted?
Clark: We are trying to be agile in our responses. We are analyzing results with our medical teams as they come back. Targeted testing results are posted on the website when we get them.
(The question of targeted testing at Wynne was repeated in a slightly different form by another caller. Clark replied with a statement about looking at “hotspots and clusters” of infection and mentioned “testing availability.”)
TIFA Ch L: Fort Stockton is on precautionary lockdown but reports inmates are being called into the kitchen to prepare johnnies. We wonder what kinds of help TDCJ has received from the state during the virus crisis, and specifically wonder if any thought has been given to asking the state for National Guard troops to work in the kitchens of locked down units.
Clark: We are in constant contact with other state agencies, including at least weekly conference calls. We have ongoing discussion with other state agencies. They have been very responsive to our requests so far, including help with thermometers and PPE. We do have contingency plans….not only a Plan B, but Plans C, D, E, and maybe F.
TCJC: Will the Governor help with mass testing for the prisons?
Brian Collier: We have been conducting asymptomatic testing in our high-risk groups for about two weeks.
TIFA Ch L: Yesterday, for the first time, field workers at Hobby Unit had their temperature taken as they returned to the unit from the field. Initial temps were showing 101, 102, 103, etc. The field lieutenant stopped the process and called someone to say she would have a bunch of people to admit to hospital if she continued the temperature taking. She was instructed to have them all wash their faces and forearms and wait in the shade for a while before continuing to take temperatures. We wonder if this is related to virus protocols or to heat mitigation protocols.
Davis: I will investigate. There must be some misunderstanding. Workers are not required to be screened when they return to the unit from work; they are not transferring in from another unit. We will help the lieutenant understand what is required.
TIFA Ch L: In some units on precautionary lockdown, inmates are restricted to their cells most of the time, but then are taken to shower with 100 people. Social distancing is really impossible.
Davis: Those 100 people are not all in the same space, showering shoulder-to-shoulder. Logistics of showers vary from unit to unit. I am aware of the difficulties. We have studied and discussed the management of those facilities. We continue to monitor the situation. I am confident that our planned protocols are being exercised.
TIFA Ch L: Lychner Unit has shown 1 pending test on the charts for over a week. Recently a second one was added to that list. We understood test results were being received in 2 to 4 days. Why has one taken so long?
Davis: The “one” might not be the same “one” every time you see a 1 on the chart. The length of time for results depends on where the testing was done.
Collier: If the testing is done internally we are getting results in 2 to 4 days. If the testing is done in a local hospital, then sent to UTMB or TTU, the report could take longer.
TIFA Ch L: Some COs have been telling inmates who want to update their HIPPA form to write the info on a piece of paper and give it to the COs to take to medical.
Black-Edwards: Inmates should be completing their own forms.
FAITH: Why are the medical release forms only good for 180 days? It seems like it would save everyone a lot of work if those could be good for a year at least.
Black-Edwards: The decision to use that time frame was made in consultation between TDCJ, UTMB, and TTU. We are allowed by law to set our own time for that. It seemed like a good option, given the fluidity of situations within the system.
TIFA Ch L: At Smith Unit inmates on heat restriction have been moved to high-security areas. They have been on medical lockdown now, without commissary or phone calls, for about 30 days.
Davis: We look at individual areas to decide on the safest way to relax movement restrictions. Smith Unit can now make calls.
TIFA Ch L: Not those heat-restricted inmates in high security.
Maybe they have had another positive case?
TIFA Ch L: Powledge Unit had all zeroes on the charts early this week; now they have over 200 on medical restriction. How do the numbers change so dramatically?
Davis: When an inmate or employee tests positive, we do a contact investigation, to see where they have been, what level of contact they have had with anyone. It is the result of contact investigation that determines the extent of medical restriction that will be required while tests are pending or when a positive test is received.
TPAA: Should the number of positive tests and number of pending tests on the charts be equal to the number of persons in medical isolation on a unit? We see discrepancies, specifically at Coffield, LeBlanc, and Cotulla units.
Clark: I will check on that.
TPAA: At Coffield, some inmates were moved from dorms to the gym. What determines who is moved and why?
Davis: I took the individuals at highest risk at Coffield and moved them out of general population and isolated them together at a distance, to minimize their exposure to the virus.
TPAA: The dishwasher is broken at Ramsey. Inmates and families are concerned about cleanliness in the kitchen at this time.
Davis: When equipment is broken there are specific food service protocols to be followed for insuring adequate hygiene. For dishwashing this describes a certain routine and certain chemicals to be used. The process is well-monitored until required repairs are made.
TPAA: Will inmates who want to see UCC about status changes be able to do that while their unit is on precautionary lockdown or will they have to wait?
Davis: Some depends on the level of lockdown the person is under. If the inmate is on medical isolation or in a medically restricted area they will have to wait. Their cases are being flagged to deal with as soon as possible. If they are just in a precautionary lockdown status, those cases are working.
TPAA: On the units where the lockdown commissary spend was allowed for hygiene and correspondence items, how often will that be repeated? And are food items being added?
Davis: We are going back through for a limited food spend in those areas. There are no plans for a regular schedule of those spends. We are evaluating each unit and providing access to commissary as possible. There are many factors to consider.
TPAA: Families with Torres Unit report an employee there with a positive test but the warden’s office denies it. Can you confirm or deny?
Davis: My notes today do not show that.
TPAA: Families report a dialysis nurse at Estelle tested positive.
Davis: We do have positives at Estelle. If a dialysis nurse tested positive, that is not a TDCJ employee and I would not be the one to report that.
TCJC: If a person has been declared eligible for parole and is needing a program like Changes before they can be discharged, are there alternative ways to deliver the course so they can move forward?
Brian Collier: No new programs are starting during the virus crisis. We are enforcing minimal movement, however, the Changes program is available on most units. A person approved for parole in January might not have been scheduled for a needed program until June. Windham continues to work with inmates whose course work was already in process at the time of movement restrictions or medical lockdown.
Call was adjourned about 10:55.
Notes of Conference Call May 1, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler
Roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA, and FAITH.
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek; TIFA CH L indicates one of the chapter leaders on the call.)
Oscar Mendoza, Deputy Executive Director of TDCJ gave the agency update, as of the close of business, Thursday, April 30. On Day 54 of TDCJ Covid-19 response, 1118 inmates and 395 employees have now tested positive for Covid-19. The number of those recovered and medically cleared is 207 inmates and 54 employees. This number is increasing quickly.
Jason Clark, Chief of Staff: We will be introducing a new element on our social media accounts featuring recovery stories from inmates and staff who have recovered from Covid-19 illness.
Dunbar: I took the survey provided last time, regarding johnnies, and sent staff into the field to the units named as having problems. They reported johnnies with a good quantity of food and a variety of items provided. They also ate the food and said it was fresh and good tasting.
TIFA: One of the main complaints we are hearing right now is that mail is being delayed on many units, both incoming and outgoing. We wonder if the delays are at USPS, in the mailrooms, or with officers delivering mail on the wings. There does seem to be a lot of variation. Some report mail being tossed into sacks and only being delivered once a week. We remind you of the importance of good mail service, especially when so many do not have phone access. We are now distributing our current newsletter, which was approved by Ms. Davis. At the Tulia Unit, a previous copy of our newsletter has been repeatedly denied. Also photocopies of greeting cards are being denied on some units. Please communicate our concerns to your mailroom supervisors.
Lorie Davis, Director of CID: We had a conference all with all our wardens and with all our mailroom supervisors this week. We reiterated the guideline regarding greeting cards, clarifying the rules about third-party cards and the admissibility of photocopied cards. We know of a specific situation at Clements, where because of illness and virus-related issues there was a four-day delay of mail coming in and going out. We have done some restructuring of the process there. We are seeing a very high volume of JPays coming in to the units, especially on Mondays. We are implementing different distribution patterns for regular mail and JPays…each will be handled by a different shift of officers. If you continue to see problems please send specific units and specific details. I am receiving large numbers of messages and emails and our staff reviews each one to see if we have already dealt with that issue or if it is one that we still need to address.
TIFA and Texas CURE: Since IPOs are not visiting inmates in person, what is the best way for them to send parole packets to the IPO?
Davis: They may be sent by regular mail or truck mailed. Truck mail continues to operate and may be the most direct way to send mail within a unit.
TIFA: Are the unit IPOs on the units or working from home?
Davis: They may be on the units to pick up or drop off paperwork, but most work is being done from home.
TIFA: Based on the charts provided by TDCJ, there continue to be many transfers of inmates, particularly at Scott, Darrington, and Beto Units.
Davis: We have an obligation to provide our inmates with the best possible access to medical care. We have moved some to be closer to Hospital Galveston. Most current transfers are to Jester 1 to our Covid-19 recovery center. For example, 79 are moving there today. They are coming from various units…Stringfellow, Scott, Hospital Galveston, and others. This is being done in consultation with Dr. Linthicum and our health services group so those inmates can receive the focused care they need for complete recovery before being returned to their home units.
TIFA: How are the lockdown commissary spends going and are you still considering adding at least some soups?
Davis: Some units have been able to do those limited lockdown spends. We are continuing to adapt and adopt as possible. It is a challenging project. We are considering various solutions. We need to be able to execute this safely. We are doing the best we can.
TIFA: People have asked about families declining to have an autopsy of deceased loved ones. Are families charged for an autopsy by TDCJ?
TIFA: There is some concern about TB patients at Beto. Are they receiving their meds? Also at Michael Unit there is a report that the daily med check consists of a quick walk-through and visual check only. Some say they are not receiving daily meds or refills of KOP meds at Michael. How are you handling routine medications for those on precautionary lockdown?
Dr. Lanette Linthicum, Director of Health Services: We have suspended pill lines on the units under precautionary lockdown, for the sake of social distancing. Thousands of routine medications have been made available as KOPs. Narcotics and some other highly regulated medications are being distributed in pill rounds by medication aides. Injectables are being administered by nurses. We have received no grievances regarding medications. If a person has an active TB case that person is in respiratory isolation. When testing shows that the person is not infectious, they will be returned to general population and continue to receive medication. If you have problems at specific units with these issues please call or email Myra Walker, Director of Nursing.
TIFA: During this time of no visitation and mail restrictions, has the incidence of K2 and other contraband on the units decreased?
Davis: No statistics on that but a significant amount of K2 was intercepted this week.
TIFA: Families are concerned about K2, so thank you for that.
TIFA Ch L: We have complaints about cool water not being provided at Michael Unit, and only 5 to 6 bars of green soap being available weekly on Coffield and Michael Units.
Davis: I will check on that. The warden at Michael Unit recently acknowledged they needed to be making more soap available.
TIFA Ch L: Some are reporting an increase in commissary and ecomm prices…seems like a hard time to do that.
Eric Johnston, Director of Commissary Services: I can’t think of recent price increases. I will check.
(Within an hour of the call, Mr. Johnston emailed me this: Becky, I looked back over our price changes for the past six weeks and found two price increases:
- Sugar free hot chocolate increased to $2.65 from $2.30
- Stevia sweetener increased to $1.45 from $1.35
All of our pricing is controlled centrally from our warehouse in Huntsville. There would not be a way for a particular unit to change the price on any item. All of the prices on eComm are exactly the same as what is on the unit. Let me know if you need anything else.)
TIFA Ch L: Thanks so much to TDCJ for deciding to delete the details of inmate crimes in the death reports. Families appreciate it very much. Reporting again from the Michael Unit, there are more complaints of meds not being properly distributed, not enough food, and that the paper cups of bleach distributed are not enough to clean their cells.
Davis: We have increased the serving sizes in the johnnies and three times weekly we are adding extra commissary items to the johnnies, including some sweet treats. Thanks to Mr. Dunbar and his staff for their follow up on the johnnies; we did not know they were doing that.
Dunbar: The sacks contain two sandwiches and extra items, plus milk, tea, lemonade, or punch.
TIFA: Have you heard anything about JPay accounts being frozen because of system problems?
Davis: About two weeks ago there was a brief problem which was fixed quickly. I have not heard of problems since then.
TIFA Ch L: We have a report from Estelle Unit, C1 pod, that inmates were all sent to the dayroom together to watch TV, with no masks.
Davis: I’ll check the video surveillance on that.
TIFA Ch L: There has also been no ecomm service and no calls being allowed from Estelle.
Davis: We are taking extreme measures to limit movement to contain spread of the virus. That plays out in different ways on different units. We are constantly assessing our risks and bringing units back up to more routine operations, in phases, as it is deemed safe.
TIFA Ch L: What are the medical criteria for an inmate to be moved from a unit to a hospital?
Dr. L: There will be a medical assessment of the necessity to move someone to a hospital. A person in medical isolation, with a positive Covid-19 test or flu-like symptoms will twice daily have their temperature checked and will be asked diagnostic questions, especially questions regarding shortness of breath and any increase or decrease in that symptom. We have added the additional questions recommended by the CDC for Covid screening, including sore throat, diarrhea, changes in smell or taste. Persons in medical isolation also have routine vital signs checked and have oxygen saturation checked daily. If medical personnel observe an increase in symptoms, especially shortness of breath, the person will be further separated for more evaluation by medical professionals who will determine the appropriate level of care, including hospitalization if needed.
TIFA Ch L: Can you tell us what percentage of inmates who have been hospitalized for Covid-19 have now recovered?
Dr. L: The charts posted have the number recovered but do not sort out those who had to be hospitalized. There have been many discharged from Hospital Galveston or from community hospitals who have now been moved to Jester 1 for convalescence before returning to their unit of residence. We are not only giving them needed care but making sure they are virus free…for more than 14 days.
TIFA Ch L: With Governor Abbott’s return-to-work program, is TDCJ considering a return of visitation privileges on units that have no Covid-19 cases?
Mendoza: We are not comfortable looking at that yet. We feel it is not wise at this time, especially given the possibility and prevalence of asymptomatic carriers. We are working very hard to contain spread of the disease and do not want to risk the safety of officers and inmates.
TIFA: Some families who have been on visitation restriction report that calls for wellness checks have been denied on that basis.
Davis: Let me know the unit; I’ll take care of it. TIFA: Stevenson Unit
Davis: While we have been on the call I have asked wardens to report in about problems with JPay distribution. They report no problems today. If you find that to be otherwise, send names of those units.
FAITH: Are units on precautionary lockdown receiving ecomms?
Davis: We are looking for a way to manage that. It is complicated by efforts to minimize movement. We are doing that as we feel it is safe to do so.
TPAA: We have reports that positive cases from Beto have been moved to cells at Estelle and the persons in cellblock C2 were moved to the gym.
Davis: We have used our evacuation spaces to spread inmates out further. There has been no direct transfer of inmates from Beto to Estelle.
TPAA: Can you tell us how the targeted testing is going at Estelle?
Dr. L: It is in process. We did move our geriatric population at Estelle into the gym for half a day for the purpose of deep cleaning their area.
TPAA: Thank you for your responses to these concerns by our families.
Texas CURE: Could we have an update on the phone policies regarding allowing short phone calls at the time inmates are taken to shower on the precautionary lockdown units?
Davis: We continue to work on that. A couple more units have been able to do that. We cannot have a system-wide policy on that issue because of differences on the units. We will continue to add back phone access as we believe it is safe.
Texas CURE: May we have a list of units that have been approved to do calls at shower time?
Davis: Telford, Beto, Stringfellow, Scott, and Murray are all allowing some degree of inmate calling. Our chaplaincy staff continues to make wellness calls for inmates in other units on precautionary lockdown. They have made over 20,000 calls so far.
TIFA Ch L: The two free calls allowed now are only for inmates who have access to the regular OTS…offender telephone service. What about other availability to call?
Davis: Inmates can send an I-60 request to the chaplain’s office; families can call chaplains and request those calls. The calls TDCJ is allowing AdSeg and G5 inmates to make are continuing, at no cost.
TIFA Ch L: Why was Polunsky on the precautionary lockdown list April 29 but not April 30?
Davis: Will check. Maybe an error?
TIFA Ch L: Thank you to Eric Johnston for quick response to a commissary issue at Polunsky on Tuesday.
TIFA: Thanks to TDCJ for these calls. Families appreciate the information.
Mendoza: We appreciate the opportunity to clear up concerns, dispel rumors, and get more accurate information out to families.
Dunbar: Next call announced for Tuesday, May 5. Call adjourned at @10:50 a.m.
Notes of Conference Call April 28, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler
Call convened at 10:00 a.m. by Mr. Marvin Dunbar TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management
Roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, Texas Voices, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, The Prison Show.
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek; TIFA CH L indicates one of the chapter leaders on the call.)
Mr. Dunbar gave a quick listing of the various agency directors and assistant directors on the call, to whom questions could be directed.
Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff gave the agency update, as of the close of business, Monday, April 27. On Day 51 of TDCJ Covid-19 response, 908 inmates and 425 employees have now tested positive for Covid-19. The 908 number includes 4 persons on parole currently residing in TDCJ facilities. The number of those recovered and medically cleared is 97 inmates and 34 employees. There are now 786 active cases of the virus. (This illustrates that some of the positive tests are for persons who are asymptomatic, or not active cases.) Over 17,000 inmates are currently on medical restriction because of exposure to a suspected case of Covid-19, or contact with a confirmed case. This number has remained relatively constant over several days. There are now 37 units on precautionary lockdown (down from 40 at the end of last week.) Manufacturing and Logistics continues to produce cloths masks and has received some new fabrics for manufacture of medical-grade protective gown. (Static…one or two sentences unclear.) There continues to be some movement of inmates to Jester 1 for recovery from illness caused by the virus, before they are returned to their home units.
TIFA: Can you give us any updates on the mass surveillance testing? Is that diagnostic testing for the virus or testing for antibodies to the virus?
Dr. Lannette Linthicum, Director of TDCJ Health Services: We are calling that “focused testing,” not “mass testing,” because we are first targeting our medically fragile or at risk inmates. We have completed that testing at the Murray and Carol Young Units. It is in process at Estelle and we have a schedule we are working through. At Murray we identified 100 inmates to be tested. Some refused the testing and a few paroled before testing started, so we tested 72 individuals and found 18 to be positive but all were asymptomatic. I am waiting for the paperwork from Young, but the verbal report sent to me says there were no positives from the focused testing there. At the Beto Unit, we have tested 293 security employees and yesterday received report that 18 are positive for the virus, but also asymptomatic. Those officers are all now furloughed and on quarantine. They will be tested again before being allowed to return to work.
Texas CURE: Could we have an update on the status of those 5-minute calls during shower time, and also whether indigent hygiene supplies are being provided?
Lorie Davis, Director of CID: Some locations have been doing the 5-minute calls with showers. The logistics are more complicated on other units. Indigent supplies have been being provided on all units. We have also initiated the $10 commissary spend for hygiene items and are looking at making some other commissary items available to the units on precautionary lockdown.
Texas CURE: Could you clarify how the surveillance testing will be showing up in the website numbers?
Clark: We are still deciding how to report the asymptomatic positive tests from focused or surveillance testing.
TIFA Ch L: Our condolences to the TDCJ family on the loss of more employees to the virus. We ask again that the agency consider not reporting details of a person’s crime when their death is reported on social media, out of respect for their families.
Clark: We will consider that.
FAITH: Could you clarify the posted numbers more? Does the total number of inmates testing positive include those now recovered and the deaths?
Clark: The total posted is all positive tests. The total active count is those showing any symptoms at this time. (There is not a column on the website for the active count at this time.)
TPAA: Do you have any other comments to make about the johnnies? We continue to hear lots of complaints from our families. I initiated a survey which shows the problem is higher on certain units. Would you like to receive that survey?
Davis: Yes, please send it. We continue to monitor and assess the johnnies. Warden Gorsuch at Beto reports that he has talked with anyone who calls his office and will provide their name and callback number. The majority of the complaints he is hearing about johnnies seem to be related to their being squashed. They are prepared on other units and are being flattened in transit. We are looking at changing that process. We have reinforced to the wardens that they are to be personally inspecting the johnnies that go out on their unit at every meal. We are also some treats from commissary inventory to the johnnies.
TPAA: We have another survey regarding families’ experiences with the medical hotlines. Some are reporting they have received no information and/or are being told to call other lines.
Dr. L: Our nurse manager, Myra Walker, has her nurses documenting the calls that come in to those lines. They are reporting many calls with questions about parole or re-entry, calls that have nothing to do with medical issues. There are also calls being made by people who are not on the release of information forms for the inmate they are calling about. We have asked families to designate ONE person to the contact person for an inmate, and that person must be on the HIPPA release of information form.
TIFA Ch L: We are hearing that some units ran out of peanut butter and received johnnies with only mayo or butter. Would it be acceptable to transfer supplies from one unit to another when supplies run out?
Davis: We would certainly transfer supplies as needed. There is no evidence that is actually happening. We have tried to investigate the allegation of “butter-only” sandwiches and cannot trace it. We have actually increased our supplies of peanut butter during this time and are closely monitoring it at all levels during the pandemic. We note what units are ordering, compared to what they should need to serve their population, and if there were a disparity we would be finding out why.
TIFA Ch L: We have heard that the employee commissary spend has been raised from $5 to $10. This is hard for families to hear, since officers can shop at stores outside but our loved ones can’t.
Davis: I will check on that.
Eric Johnston, Director of Commissary Services: On Friday, staff asked for that increase and we are trying to help them as well. We have many officers working 12-hour shifts and our inventory is in good shape right now.
Davis: We have many officers volunteering to work overtime, sometimes 12, 14, or 16 hour days, so that our units can continue to operate safely. They’re not always off duty when the outside stores are open.
TIFA Ch L: We have reports that inmates have altered the masks provided to be able to keep them on their faces while working, and then are having cases written for that alteration.
Davis: I have not heard of cases for that, but they have been asked to wear them as designed. What unit is this coming from?
TIFA Ch L: Briscoe Unit
TIFA Ch L: We know that many units are short-staffed even in good times. What about now, with officers out sick?
Davis: Yes, that has been true for a while. But our true, professional staff recognizes the emergency situation and most are willingly working extra and moving as needed. We are constantly working with wardens and regional directors to make sure staffing is adequate. We are thankful for the courage and commitment of the true professionals we have. We know they are tired but understand the need. We are very proud of them.
TIFA Ch L: Is there a contingency plan for if things come to a breaking point with staffing… a point at which the officers simply can’t give any more? They are taxing their own immune systems with long hours and heavy exposure load to the virus on some units.
Davis: We are pushing ourselves to do some creative thinking. We believe we are prepared to continue with an appropriate level of response to the situation.
TIFA Ch L: There is a real need for inmates to get some exposure to sunlight…for their general well-being as well as to boost their immune systems.
Davis: This is on our mind. It is being discussed. We will try to implement that for as many inmates as possible as soon as possible.
Call adjourned by Mr. Dunbar at 10:30 a.m. Next call announced for Friday, May 1st.
Notes of Conference Call April 24, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler
Call convened at 10:00 a.m. by Mr. Marvin Dunbar TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management
Roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, Texas Voices, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
(TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek; TIFA CH L indicates one of the chapter leaders on the call.)
Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff gave the agency update, as of the close of business, Thursday, April 23. On Day 47 of TDCJ Covid-19 response, 693 inmates and 265 employees have now tested positive for Covid-19. The number of those recovered and medically cleared is 47 inmates and 15 employees. Over 17,000 inmates are currently on medical restriction because of exposure to a suspected case of Covid-19, or contact with a confirmed case. 40 units have been placed on precautionary lockdown. In response to a request made on the last call, for the duration of the virus crisis, TDCJ will use direct dial instead of collect calls for those inmates who do not have access to the offender phone system but are being allowed to make calls home during the virus crisis.
Dunbar: Because of time constraints for TDCJ Directors who have another meeting at 11:00, we will go directly to questions from advocacy groups.
TIFA: Condolences for recent TDCJ losses of employees due to tornado and to Covid-19.
Questions and comments about johnny sacks: Ramsey Unit reports field workers often being sent out without breakfast, lunch sometimes being delivered to them in the field and sometimes not, so some days only one meal, and very sparse. Pack Unit reports sometimes only butter, not even peanut butter with bread in johnnies. Reports from Carol Young Unit that pregnant are losing weight because of insufficient calories in johnnies. Beto Unit, receiving johnnies from other units, reports food sometimes frozen, sometimes overcooked, sometimes just peanut butter. Maybe look at other delivery models for food to those on lockdown…such as packaging regular meals for delivery, similar to Meals on Wheels. What about allowing men to take their bowls to the kitchen and return to cells to eat. Maybe add ramen and tea bags or other items to johnnies to increase substance and provide variety to the meals.
(Lorie Davis of CID was temporarily unavailable on the ZOOM but came back later and responded to all questions related to her division. Her responses are recorded with those questions. Some of Dr. Linthicum’s responses have also been moved in the summary to go with related questions.)
Lorie Davis, Director of CID: We have had minimal complaints from the units about the johnnies. In fact a thank you note from inmates on Pack Unit regarding the johnnies there was received yesterday. I’ve written down the units mentioned and will check on those.
TIFA: We have heard of some unrest at the Beto Unit…a riot last night?…and at the Hughes Unit…notable anxiety and suicide attempts because of the lockdown. A father reported his son who was sick but had no fever was sent back to his cell and no one checked on him for three days while he was sick in his cell.
Davis: There was no riot at Beto last night. We are all concerned about the effects of the lockdown. We are giving the Beto warden and staff as much assistance as we possibly can. The nature of this virus is very confusing to all. We are trying to be proactive and creative. I am usually notified within two hours of any suicide attempt. I have had no word of any at Hughes. Regarding the sick son left alone, please send details.
Dr. Lannette Linthicum, Director of Health Services: Nurses are making daily rounds of all areas of all units on precautionary lockdown.
TIFA: Regarding the medical hotlines, we understand that people are calling and being asked to leave voicemail to be called back but the voicemail boxes are full.
TIFA: Hotter weather is here in some areas. Has the supply of ice water on the units started? What about respite areas during medical lockdowns?
Davis: We have well-established heat-mitigation protocols, which went into effect on April 15. Cool water is being distributed in all areas. Our commitment to these protocols has not changed during the pandemic.
TIFA: We are concerned about reports of guards working on two different units, especially when one unit has positive cases of Covid-19 and the other does not, such as Gurney and Beto, now Neal and Clements. We urge TDCJ to restrict guards to work at only one unit until the crisis is passed, especially given that asymptomatic carriers of the virus can still be shedding virus wherever they go.
Davis: In a perfect world we would not be sharing guards between units.
TIFA: Are trustee camps being closed? We have heard that Chase Field trustees have been sent to Garza Unit.
Davis: The Chase Field trustee camp was absorbed into Garza East and Garza West because inmates recovering from the virus are being housed there for convalescence. This was determined to be the best use of agency resources.
Dr. L: Jester 1 has been designated as housing for Covid-19 convalescents…those being discharged from Hospital Galveston and from community hospitals who still need some recovery time. The Jester Units have more nursing staff and good medical support. There was definitely a medical purpose for this move.
TIFA: Regarding mass testing…will you be reporting those survelliance numbers separately from the current medical testing being done for those showing symptoms?
Clark: Yes, the targeted testing of Beto staff started today. We will be tracking those numbers separately. The current numbers posted are for those showing symptoms. We are still deciding what will be the best way of presenting that information clearly without confusing the two kinds of testing.
Dr. L: Yes, the numbers of positive cases are increasing at Beto. We do not understand why our mitigation efforts are not working there. In consultation with state health services, we received permission to test all officers there today; that is underway as we speak. Beginning Monday, we will begin mass testing of Beto inmates, starting with the medically fragile. We will be looking at that data with UTMB staff and state health services.
TIFA: Has the modified commissary spend for units on precautionary lockdown started?
Eric Johnston, Director of Commissary Services: Yes, it has started. We will be looking next week at adding some food items to what can be ordered.
TIFA: Were the Beto inmates transferred to Stringfellow placed in the gym or in cells?
Davis: In cells.
Texas CURE: Thanks to TDCJ for the adjustment from direct dial instead of collect calls to families for G5 and AdSeg inmates. Have you heard of Germ Falcon…a company which produces sanitizing equipment for aircraft? They are making some of their equipment available free of charge.
Bobby Lumpkin, Director of Mfg, Ag, and Logistics: We have been doing some research but have not heard of that company. Please forward the info.
The Prison Show: Please give an update on the availability of PPE, masks, sanitizer, and soap for inmates.
Lumpkin: All inmates now have two masks and units are laundering masks daily. Our inventory of bar soap has doubled; there are ample inventories. Inmates should be able to wash their hands as many times a day as they wish.
Prison Show: Will there be more movement of TDCJ inmates in Brazoria county?
Davis: We are moving inmates as needed for best medical care and consult several times daily with health services to see that everyone is getting the right level of care.
Prison Show: Thanks to all for these calls and for your transparency and help.
FAITH: Thanks for the call and condolences to TDCJ on their losses and to the families of inmates who have died. We have complaints of mail and JPays not being received or being very late on several units….Michael, Connally, McConnell, Wynne, maybe others in my notes.
Davis: Send list. Will check.
TPAA: Please clarify what information the hotlines can give out.
Dr. L: Regarding the medical hotlines…3rd line is for organizations, legislators, state officials, to ask questions. The UTMB and TTU family lines are open 2-5 p.m., M-F, after the twice-daily nursing rounds information has been entered into the computers. They are able to release any information in an inmate’s medical records to persons on the medical release form for that inmate. There are other hotlines…for example, the ombudsman’s hotline, the re-entry hotline…
TPAA: Will TDCJ consider allowing some phone access for inmates on the precautionary lockdown status?
David: We are piloting a trial at some units for inmates to be allowed a 5 minute call at the time they are taken out for showers. We’ll see if that works out.
TPAA: Please clarify the 14-day period for precautionary lockdown.
Davis: We need 14 days between symptoms of Covid-19 and no symptoms to declare a unit clear.
TPAA: So would a unit’s count start over when an inmate tested positive was transferred into that unit?
Davis: Only Scott and Stringfellow Units have had anyone with a positive test transferred there and they already had positive cases of their own before those transfers happened. We are not transferring anyone with a positive test to a unit without a positive test.
TIFA Ch L: My son’s ID needed to be replaced…was taken from him because it was old. Then lockdown happened and he/we were given the run-around about getting it taken care of. The problems seemed to be more at the unit level. Thanks to Molly in Huntsville Commissary offices who got it resolved, but there are likely others with this problem who have no outside advocate to help.
Johnston: Our ID replacement procedures changed a couple of years ago and it is more automated now. Replacements are FedExed to the units every Wednesday. There may be some delays getting photos right now, but there is a procedure in place to issue a temporary ID with an old picture.
TIFA Ch L: What is the death toll from Covid-19 in TDCJ today?
Clark: We have had 3 employee deaths and 7 inmate deaths attributed to Covid-19. There are 8 autopsies pending.
Dr. L: Some persons who have died with positive tests for Covid-19 have been given a cause of death for other reasons, such as one who died from an infection after surgery, rather than from the virus. The autopsy will give the official cause of death.
TIFA Ch L: How long do autopsy results take?
Dr. L: Preliminary reports usually take 1 to 2 weeks. A final report including tissue samples and toxicology screens take longer. The final report often does not change the results of the preliminary report.
TIFA Ch L: Is there only one provider doing autopsies for TDCJ?
Dr. L: Offender deaths are attended by a justice of the peace or a physician in the hospital or a county medical examiner. Most autopsies are done by UTMB; some by Tarrant County; some by other county MEs.
TIFA Ch L: What kind of protocols and care are being given to TDCJ inmates hospitalized with Covid-19? And are they being allowed to participate in any clinical trials?
Dr. L: Inmates who are critically ill or near death may be allowed to participate in trials. Doctors have the final word. Community hospitals usually do not have clinical trials going on; that is usually at a teaching hospital, such as with UTMB.
TIFA Ch L: Families are telling us there are 4 confirmed virus cases at Skyview. Can you confirm that?
Dr. L: I learned just yesterday evening of 2 nurses at Skyview who have tested positive, and some areas of the unit are now on medical restriction. I do not have any newer numbers than that today.
Clark: No offenders have tested positive at Skyview.
TIFA Ch L: Why is information about a person’s crime being reported with their death by TDCJ on social media? Is that necessary? It is very upsetting to family members. Please re-evaluate this practice.
Clark: This has been the long-time practice of TDCJ when reporting the death of an offender.
TIFA Ch L: Are there any revocations of parole happening?
Pamela Thielke, Director of Parole Services: Yes, the numbers are reduced because many parolees are sheltering in place and not getting out and getting in trouble.
TIFA Ch L: What about people who cannot pay parole fees or student loans because they have lost jobs?
Thielke: We review a person’s ability to pay and if there is loss of income, fees go on hold but accumulate.
Call adjourned by Marvin Dunbar at 10:50 a.m. with thanks and announcement of the next call for Monday, April 28.
Notes of Conference Call April 21, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler
Call convened at 10:00 a.m. by Mr. Marvin Dunbar TDCJ Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management
Roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, Texas Voices, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition…TCJC, The Prison Show, Texas Prisons Air-Conditioning Associates…TPAA
Department Directors online will give updates from their areas. (TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek; TIFA CH L indicates one of the chapter leaders on the call.)
Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff gave the agency update, as of the close of business, Monday, April 20. On Day 44 of TDCJ Covid-19 response, 468 inmates and 215 employees have now tested positive for Covid-19. The number of those recovered and medically cleared is rising. Over 15,000 inmates are currently on medical restriction because of exposure to a suspected case of Covid-19, or contact with a confirmed case. All medically at-risk inmates have been provided with cotton masks. More no-touch thermometers have been procured.
Reports from TDCJ Departmental Directors
Pam Thielke, Director of Parole Services: We’ve had some questions about releasing procedures. There are many steps to the release process, but our business is continuing normally with no delays. We are not behind on processing people who are being released.
April Zamora, Director of Re-entry Services: We are processing those who have been cleared for release. The re-entry hotline at 1-877 887 6151 is open now at 6:30 a.m. and manned by persons ready to answer family questions, even on the day of release. We are also making calls to families to be sure they know where to go to pick up their loved ones.
Rene Hinojosa, Director of Rehabilitation Services: We have sent 1300 religious videos to units, to be played in the dayrooms in place of chapel services during the Covid-19 movement restrictions. We continue to make calls for those in lockdown and on medical restriction. 9300+ calls have been made so far.
Eric Johnston, Director of Commissary Services: Our inventories of water, noodles, and toilet paper are adequate. Commissary Services will implement a modified commissary schedule and procedures for any units that are on the recent administratively imposed lockdowns, or that may subsequently be placed on lockdown. Offenders will be allowed to purchase the following:
- Correspondence supplies up to $10 (paper, pens, envelopes, etc.)
- Stamps – up to 30 stamps, but does not count as part of the $10 limit above
- Hygiene items:
- (1) Shampoo
- (1) Toothbrush
- (1) Toothpaste
- (1) Deodorant
- (1) Comb
- (5) Soap
- (2) Toilet Paper
- (1) Box Tampons (female only)
- Electrolytes – individual serving drink mix (50)
Operationally, security staff will collect offender ID cards and order slips and bring to commissary. Commissary staff will fill orders, label the bags with offender’s name, number, and housing location, and return to security staff to deliver to the offenders.
Kristina Hartman, Windham Schools Superintendent: Library services and instructional services on the units are going well. As part of our health and wellness emphasis last week, we sent material on maintaining physical fitness while on cell restriction. This week we are emphasizing career exploration and career pathways. We distributed interest inventories for inmates to complete. These will be scored and returned with a list of careers which might be a good fit for the inmate on return to the community. They can choose three options for further study. These responses will provide good information for future planning by Windham. The governor announced that Texas schools would be closed through the summer. Since our model is distance learning, we will continue to provide our classes. Families are encouraged to visit the Windham Facebook page to see the TDCJ Unit principals.
Eric Guerrero, Deputy Director of CID: We are distributing two masks per offender over the entire state. We are deep cleaning cells of all medically restricted areas. We have instructed wardens to be sure someone is available to answer phones and take questions on all units.
Ron Hudson, reporting for Mfg, Ag, and Logistics: We have made 483,000 masks so far, enough to distribute 2 per inmate. The last 20 units will receive that supply today.
Mr. Dunbar called for questions from the family and advocacy groups on the call.
TIFA: We continue to receive complaints about the quality and quantity of food in the johnnies. Pack Unit reports a reduction in the size of portions. Could we work on enhancing portion size and variety in the johnnies since we have this extended and uncertain time of lockdown? Are there any food shortages?
Jason Clark: We have no food shortages. I will contact food services with the questions about portions and variety.
TIFA: 1) We have complaints from several units that officers are not wearing masks or are not wearing them properly.
2) Wynne and Ramsey Units report 100 inmates at a time being taken to showers.
3) We are concerned about some guards working at both Beto and C. Moore Units.
These were comments made by way of report, for the agency to follow up later. No immediate response was asked for.
TIFA: We had heard about more widespread testing being done. This was mandated by a judge for the Pack Unit. Is it planned for other units?
Dr. Lannette Linthicum, Director of Health Services: We are in ongoing discussions with state health services about our pandemic response. Just yesterday we received approval to expand our testing. I am in the UTMB offices today to plan the implementation of expanded testing. We will begin first at units with high numbers of positive Covid-19 tests and focus on at-risk offenders…those 65 and over, having asthma or COPD, HIV positive, those with kidney disease, diabetics, and those with organ transplants.
TIFA: How many TDCJ inmates are currently on ventilators for Covid-19?
Dr. L: at Hospital Galveston there are 43 inmates who have tested positive for Covid-19. 7 are in ICU. 6 are on ventilators. There are also some in community hospitals around the state…no complete numbers today.
TIFA: We appreciate your plan to move offenders with positive tests but few symptoms closer to care at Hospital Galveston. Are there plans to transfer more of those people to Scott or Stringfellow Units?
TIFA: We know that FI-5 and FI-6 programs are available on all units. Are people mandated to those programs as a condition of release having to wait to start them?
Hinojosa: If they are in the program now, they are continuing on schedule. If they are scheduled to start in June or July, we will evaluate the situation at that time. If they are supposed to be starting this month, while we are in the mode of minimizing movement, they will not be able to start until lockdowns are over.
TIFA: Is there a process in place for people who are on medically restricted units and will be released from there to go to some sort of isolation two weeks before release, like self-quarantining on the outside, so that they and their families can know they are being released Covid-free? Maybe also add some testing at that point?
Guerrero: Since they are releasing from their home units, trying to provide more isolation services might be a matter of logistics.
Zamora: They are being given masks and information about staying safe. We also notify the state health services.
Dr. L: We are required by law to coordinate with the receiving counties and notify them regarding any possible contact with the virus by the person being released.
Texas CURE: Are there still phone calls being provided for inmates without access to the offender telephone system…the G5s and Ad Seg inmates?
Clark: We are still working through the first call for all those inmates.
Texas CURE: We were told the calls would first be tried as collect calls and if no one answered they would try again as direct dial. Reports are that those collect calls are costing families up to $23 for 5 minutes, as assessed by whoever their service provider is. Would the agency consider making all those calls direct dial?
Clark: We will check on that.
TCJC: Do you know how many inmates we have on blue warrants?
Thielke: We receive a monthly jail population report from the counties with that information. I do not have current numbers.
TCJC: Are there people waiting for beds in SAFE-P programs?
Clark: Since we have stopped intake from the counties, there may be some. The programs continue for those who are already working on them.
TIFA Ch L: I want to make the comment that TDCJ has been under a lot of public pressure lately. I hope this experience highlights the complexity of the workings of the agency. I think you are doing a good job. Since we have so many units on medical lockdowns with no way to estimate how long that will continue, will you investigate ways to provide some rec time in sunlight, or at least add Vitamin D to commissary items?
Clark: We are dealing with a lot of uncertainty. We are trying to remain flexible and make adjustments as needed.
TIFA Ch L: Coffield Unit does laundry for Gurney Unit. What kinds of protection against virus spread is being done in laundries?
Guerrero: Masks and gloves are provided for laundry workers.
TIFA Ch L: What kinds of precautions are being taken about correct calibration of thermometers?
Clark: We are replacing and building up our supplies of thermometers and will be calibrating them.
Dr. L: Nursing staff are working with other staff members about proper use of thermometers.
The Prison Show: We appreciate the way TDCJ is working to protect our loved ones. Thanks for scrambling.
Clark: We appreciate your thanks. Last week in Huntsville some prisoner families rallied to express thanks to the command staff and that means a lot.
Called ended by Mr. Dunbar with thanks on all sides; looking forward to the next call later this week.
Notes of Conference Call April 17, 2020, TDCJ and TIFA
Summary and paraphrase of call by Becky Haigler
Call convened at 10:00 a.m. by Jason Clark, TDCJ Chief of Staff, and Ms. Frances Gattis, Deputy Director of Administrative Review and Risk Management.
Roll call of groups participating: TIFA, Texas CURE, Texas Voices, TCJC, The Prison Show
Department Directors online will give updates from their areas. (TIFA in these notes indicates TIFA Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek; TIFA CH L indicates one of the chapter leaders on the call.)
Jason Clark gave the agency update, as of the close of business, Thursday, April 16. 328 inmates and 158 employees have now tested positive for Covid-19. Test results are coming back quickly…24 to 48 hours. As of today, 27 units, almost 12,000 inmates, have been placed on precautionary lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus. Thanks for using the TDCJ website updates and charts. The charts are being reworked. Perhaps today, certainly by early next week, there will be a column to show numbers of persons who had tested positive but have now been medically cleared. There will also be a column for the number of deaths.
Reports from TDCJ departmental directors:
Lorie Davis, CID Director: We continue to monitor and evaluate our virus response. We appreciate assistance and cooperation from all divisions.
Billy Lumpkin, Director of Mfg, Ag, and Logistics: We continue production of cotton masks in 10 factories. Masks have been distributed to all inmates 65 and over and those identified as high-risk by medical personnel. They have been provided in sufficient numbers for them to have one to wear and one to wash.
Rene Hinojosa, Director of Rehabilitative Services: We continue to make calls to families on behalf of inmates on medical restriction; more than 5000 have been made. This is helpful for both inmates and family members to receive word on health conditions of the other.
Eric Johnston, Director of Commissary Services: Our inventory of ramen soups is improving. They should return to availability on ecomm by next week. We have a backlog of about 1200 ecomm deliveries.
April Zamora, Director of Re-entry Services: We continue to call family members to let them know the unit their loved one will be released from. If a person being released is on medical restriction, we notify state health services of the date that person will complete their 14-day self-quarantine or medical restriction observation period. No-cost testing will be available to those persons as needed.
Pamela Thielke, Director of Parole Services: We continue our programs, emphasizing social distancing. Since April 6, our employees wear masks in all contacts with clients. We also have masks to distribute to clients who come into the office. We have many virus information documents we are distributing to clients.
Questions from groups on the call:
TIFA: We are hearing many questions and concerns about conditions at the Beto Unit, including shortages of food and staff.
Davis: We did move 98 persons from the Beto Unit. There are no food shortages. Cleaning protocols continue. No current needs are reported by Warden Gorsuch. Most of the persons with positive tests at Beto remain asymptomatic.
TIFA: We have questions about inmates who were not able to go to commissary before medical lockdown who are running very low on stamps and are concerned about being able to stay in touch with family.
Davis: We are working this week on some limited commissary spends, to be starting next week, which would include writing materials and stamps.
TIFA CH L: Ramsey Unit has no Covid cases but recently some inmates were transferred there who had previously been in a quarantined setting. Why?
Davis: Those transferred did come from Stringfellow and Scott, but no one who had been in a quarantine or medically restricted area were moved there. They are being housed in the emergency evacuation space, the gymnasium, and do not have contact with other inmates.
TX Voices: Does TDCJ have an adequate amount of testing supplies?
Clark: TTU and UTMB report ample supplies for current level of testing and for increased levels of testing if that becomes necessary.
TIFA CH L: As of yesterday, the Beto Unit had 118 positive cases and 2346 on medical restriction; Coffield has 0 positives and 2 on medical restriction. Are there testing supplies at Coffield? Do we know why such a large discrepancy despite the proximity of the units?
Davis: Yes, they have testing supplies. We do not understand why some units are affected and not others.
TIFA CH L: How is TDCJ preparing for the isolation and quarantine of vulnerable prisoners?
Davis: Layout and logistics vary from unit to unit. Many have cells, cell blocks, easy to convert for isolation. We are also using the evacuation spaces, or gyms.
TIFA CH L: How is TDCJ dealing with staffing shortages, especially given the number that are either testing positive or remaining home on medical restriction?
Davis: We talk with our regional directors as many as two to three times daily; units report their staffing levels to the regional directors. We are keeping good records of those out, following up with them. There is lots of overtime being worked and some non-uniformed staff who are trained in correctional work are returning to the units.
Prison Show: Kudos to TDCJ that about 80 of the 105 units have no Covid numbers at all. Regarding 90 persons moved from the Beto Unit during these first 40 days…were they tested before being moved?
Davis: That group of Beto inmates had all tested positive but were asymptomatic. They had already been together in isolation and have not been mixed with another population after they were moved. They were moved in order to be closer to Hospital Galveston, to have better access to hospitalization if they do become symptomatic, and to minimize any potential strain on the local hospitals near Beto.
Prison Show: We hear a lot of fear, panic, and rumor from callers on our show and we are trying to help alleviate that with good information.
Clark: We appreciate that.
TIFA CH L: What can you tell us about the percentages of positive tests related to high-risk inmates, or cool-bed inmates? Are there groups or areas that seem to be more likely to have positive test results?
Davis: We are studying our numbers; no patterns are emerging yet; no trends stick out. We have tried to deal with our high-risk populations quickly.
TIFA CH L: What is the number of inmates currently hospitalized?
Davis: We have 15 in hospitals. We monitor their status twice a day.
TIFA CH L: Does Governor Abbott know about the TDCJ Covid statistics? Does he make any response?
Clark: We share our numbers daily with state leadership. We participate in weekly calls with them. They have been very responsive.
TIFA CH L: What protocols are being used to insure COs follow through with social distancing requirements and wearing of masks? We hear reports that some do and some don’t. Are wardens monitoring?
Davis: Yes, wardens are monitoring and reporting. We are encouraging them to stay mobile on the unit.
TIFA CH L: Please further clarify the 14-day medical lockdown that starts over with every new positive virus test.
Davis: We are following the recommendations developed with health experts…the CDC and Dr. Linthicum… that there should be 14 days between the last symptomatic day and a return to normal operations on a unit. We have some units that have already come back up after being on medical lockdown.
Jason Clark ended the call at 10:34 with appreciation for the work of community groups in getting good information out to families and suggesting the next call for Tuesday, April 21.