More than 20% of the Texas prison population is over the age of 50, the most at-risk population when it comes to the new coronavirus. But the state prison system makes it difficult, and perhaps impossible, for some inmates to take the basic precautions necessary to prevent an outbreak of the disease among the state’s 140,000 inmates.


On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced prison visitations would be suspended at the 92 state-operated facilities, and prison officials say there are no signs the virus has been transmitted inside. But one of the nation’s leading prison experts and family members of inmates are calling on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to do more to protect those inside, including allowing inmates to use hand sanitizer and bleach for cleaning and eliminating fees for soap and doctor’s visits.


"The risks of this disease are incredibly huge. It’s going to spread like wildfire," said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.


TDCJ spokesman Robert Hurst said the agency is working to prevent the spread of coronavirus inside prisons.


"Common sense is what needs to be considered at all times," Hurst said.


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Texas has 140,419 prison inmates. Nearly 30,000 are 50 or older.


Older adults and those with chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, are at higher risk of getting severely ill from the COVID-19 virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Amid the pandemic, health experts have repeatedly explained that the most effective way to prevent spreading the virus is to wash hands often with soap and water and to keep surfaces clean.


In an environment where social distancing is impossible and where cleanliness is often considered subpar, Deitch said, those basic hygienic protections become even more important.


"This is going to be a hotspot the same way nursing homes are," Deitch said.


Hand sanitizer and bleach are considered contraband among inmates — though guards are given hand sanitizer. Soap is available from the commissary for a fee: 1.25 oz. of antibacterial soap is 15 cents and 1.25 oz. of Dial soap is 20 cents. The fee may be small, but for the many inmates who are indigent, it’s not affordable.


Inmates must also pay $13.55 per doctor visit, which prevents some from seeking health care.


Among the measures TDCJ is taking to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is to ensure that potentially ill correctional officers don’t bring the disease inside. That’s especially challenging for an agency already short about 4,600 workers.


Correctional officers can’t do their work remotely, and the agency said Friday that it isn’t authorized to take its employees’ temperatures to ensure they’re not ill before they enter prison units. But Saturday, the agency said in a statement that it would take employees’ temperatures. It was not immediately clear what changed.


"If someone comes to a facility who is not feeling well and they show any signs of perhaps having the COVID-19, they will be asked to return," Hurst said.


According to its website, TDCJ employees who feel ill or have a fever should stay home. If an employee feels ill at work and they are in a unit where the virus has been confirmed, they will be screened and sent home, and required to submit a doctor’s note before returning to work.


Hurst couldn’t say whether TDCJ had coronavirus testing kits on hand, only that it had the ability to test if necessary.


Hurst said inmates complaining of symptoms would be seen by the prison system’s health care professionals as they normally are, but he couldn’t say how quickly they could be seen.


The federal prison system, which has also suspended visitation, is dealing with the novel coronavirus differently than TDCJ by screening and taking the temperatures of staff in areas of the country where the CDC has determined there’s been sustained community transmission. The Bureau of Prisons is also suspending inmate transfers and quarantining asymptomatic inmates with exposure risk factors.


There are 20 Bureau of Prison facilities in Texas and 17,760 federal inmates.


Nationwide, nearly 20% of federal inmates are older than 50.


Deitch said she worried the understaffed prisons could become more dangerous without inmates having visitation to look forward to.


The Texas visitation ban also will keep out volunteers who come into prisons, including chaplains and those who participate in educational programs.


Deitch recommended TDCJ expand inmates’ access to phone and video calls with their loved ones, as the federal prison system has done, and that correctional officers brush up on their de-escalation techniques.


It currently costs 6 cents per minute for an inmate to make a phone call, but the phones are only available at certain times.


"Idleness creates tension and violence," Deitch said, pointing to deaths and escapes after Italian prisons suspended visitation in response to coronavirus.


Complete coverage: Texas prepares for coronavirus


Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association, wrote a letter to TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier and has spoken with other administrators on the phone. Among the measures she’s requested: complete access to phones, free access to medical care for inmates displaying symptoms, and careful screening of correctional officers and anyone entering the prisons.


"These are immediate things that TDCJ could do that would relieve some of the anxiety," Erschabek said.


In the longer term, Erschabek and Deitch said the Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles should expedite parole for eligible inmates.


"Just like in the free world, a lot of the hospitals are trying to empty out people who don’t have to be there," Deitch said. "How are the prisons going to be clearing out their health care facilities to make room for this potential population?"


For now, though, inmates and their families will have to rely on phones and video chats to stay in touch with their loved ones behind bars, and hope that the measures in place keep them safe.


Jeff Gifford and his wife leave their home in Austin at 3:30 a.m. every Saturday to visit their son, Sam, at the Darrington Unit in Brazoria County. Sam was sentenced to 50 years in prison in 2011 for murder.


"You just can’t even imagine what those two hours mean to us," Gifford said.


When Gifford learned Friday that their Saturday routine would be altered for the foreseeable future, he said he understood, but "my wife will cry for days."


Additional material by staff writer Andrea Ball.