4 Texas prisons on lockdown due to possible COVID-19 exposures

The Rufe Jordan Unit, Dr. Lane Murray Unit, George Beto Unit and Barry B. Telford Unit have all been placed on lockdown


By Julian Gill
Houston Chronicle

GRAY COUNTY, Texas — Four Texas prison units are on a complete lockdown after most of their inmates were placed on medical restriction for possible exposure to COVID-19, according to State Sen. John Whitmire’s office.

The Rufe Jordan Unit, the Dr. Lane Murray Unit, the George Beto Unit and the Barry B. Telford Unit have all been placed on a complete lockdown, according to Whitmire, who serves as chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

The lockdowns were ordered “because there are enough cases or evidence to indicate that is the wisest move to continue to contain the virus,” said TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel.

The uptick in medical restrictions comes after 49-year-old prison guard Kelvin Wilcher died Monday. Wilcher, who last worked March 31 at the Estelle Unit in Huntsville, tested positive for COVID-19 at a Houston hospital. Officials say it’s unclear whether he died from the virus.

He suffered a “cardiac event” April 1 after he was admitted to the hospital, the agency said. He was moved to the ICU and received a positive test result April 4. He died two days later.

Among the prisons on lockdown, the Jordan Unit reported 993 inmates in medical restriction as of Tuesday. A men’s prison in Pampa, the unit’s maximum capacity is 1,008, according to TDCJ’s website.

The Murray Unit, a women’s prison in Gatesville, reported 1,144 inmates in medical restriction Tuesday with a maximum capacity of 1,341. The Beto Unit, a men’s prison with a maximum capacity of 3,471, reported 3,356 inmates in medical restriction. Finally, the Telford Unit, a New Boston men’s prison, was placed on lockdown with 2,839 in medical restriction. Telford’s maximum capacity is 2,872.

All inmates in those units have been confined to their cells, Desel said.

Medical restriction is one of two levels of quarantine created by TDCJ to slow the spread of COVID-19. Inmates are placed in medical restriction if they’ve been exposed to a confirmed case or someone showing symptoms of the virus. Typically those inmates are restricted to one part of the unit, and medical staff checks on them twice a day.

Inmates are sent to medical isolation, in which they are placed in a single cell in another part of the unit, if they test positive or show symptoms of the virus. They are given a face masks, and nurses regularly check their respiratory status, officials said.

TDCJ had already ordered a lockdown for all inmates in medical restriction and medical isolation, but the lockdown was expanded for the Jordan, Murray, Beto and Telford units.

According to TDCJ, the lone inmate in medical isolation at the Jordan Unit had tested positive. Seventeen Murray Unit inmates were in medical isolation as of Monday, including four with a positive test.

In the Beto Unit, six of the 34 inmates in medical isolation have tested positive — tied with Telford for the highest case total among all individual prison units. Six of the 22 prisoners in medical isolation at Telford tested positive.

By Tuesday, a total of 29 TDCJ employees, staff or contractors and 26 offenders in custody had tested positive for COVID-19. Desel said a statewide lockdown has not been necessary. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Whitmire added that he’s pleased with the prison system’s response to the virus. He said the decision to lockdown the entire system should be based on daily and hourly evaluations within the state’s prisons.

“(A lockdown) is a tremendous hardship on the inmates and the correctional officers,” he said. “But obviously public health and the safety and the welfare of the inmates and employees are the highest priority. So far they’ve managed it.”

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©2020 the Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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