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20 Inmates In Travis County's Del Valle Jail Have Tested Positive For COVID

Barbed-wire fence outside the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle.
Michael Minasi
The Travis County Sheriff's Office confirmed that in the last three days 20 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus at the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle.

The Travis County Correctional Complex has seen its first outbreak of COVID-19 among inmates, according to the Travis County Sheriff's Office.

The department, which manages both the facility in Del Valle and the downtown jail, confirmed to KUT that 20 inmates have tested positive in the last three days.

Those inmates were housed in Building 12 of the TCCC, spokesperson Kristen Dark said. As of Friday, the building housed nearly 1,000 inmates.

Dark said the 20 inmates have been moved to a quarantine unit in the downtown jail, per department protocol. Inmates who may have been exposed will remain in their housing units within the Del Valle jail, and staff will monitor them for symptoms.

This is the first instance of community spread among Travis County's inmate population. As of last week, 69 inmates had tested positive throughout the entire pandemic – a roughly 10-month timeframe.

The sheriff's office has pinned that relatively low figure on its redesigned intake process, which it rolled out in March. Inmates are quarantined in isolation for 10 to 14 days upon arrival. After that, they're transferred to the general population.

If an inmate is symptomatic – or if they refuse to answer questions about their health – they're held in quarantine until the symptoms subside, they test negative or until medical staff OKs their transfer into the general population.

Dark says that system prevented community spread until this week.

"This has been a really good system that has held COVID out of our general population for 10 months," she told KUT. "We hate the situation we're in now, but we are putting all of our plans in place, and we are doing all we can to mitigate COVID from moving any further."

While it's possible more inmates could test positive in the coming days, Dark emphasized the 20 positive cases represent a sliver of Travis County's total inmate population. As of Friday, she said, there were 1,818 inmates in the system.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown commended Sheriff Sally Hernandez and her staff for keeping COVID-19 cases low over the past 10 months.

“While this outbreak is concerning, I am confident the Sheriff’s office is doing everything within its power to get this under control and to keep the jail population healthy and safe,” he told KUT in a text.

Jails in Texas have been hotspots for COVID-19 throughout the pandemic. A UT study out late last year found inmate deaths related to COVID-19 in Texas were 35% higher than the rest of the nation's prison populations.

Early on in the pandemic, Harris County judges tried to expedite the release of some inmates to avoid the spread of COVID-19, prompting Gov. Greg Abbott to issue an executive order limiting judges' ability to do so.

Judges and criminal justice advocates sued, arguing the order was unconstitutional. A Travis County judge ruled in favor of that challenge, but the Texas Supreme Court ultimately sided with the state.

This story has been updated.

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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