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Protocols at Central Texas jails weren't clear during the pandemic, making COVID hard to track

Michael Minasi

Central Texas jails had inconsistent COVID policies across the board in terms of testing, distribution of PPE, access to medical treatment and even state-mandated reporting, according to a new report.

The report, released Thursday by the Texas Appleseed and the Texas Justice Initiative, looked at how jails responded to the pandemic between November 2020 and March 2021. Researchers examined policies and surveyed both inmates and staff.

As the pandemic ramped up, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards started requiring jails to submit daily case numbers to track the spread of COVID. Researchers found Travis County reported daily case numbers only about half the time in the study’s timeframe. That response time was the highest among all five counties in Central Texas.

Hays County responded about half the time, too, while Williamson, Hays and Caldwell counties responded less than a third of the time on average.

The study also noted testing wasn’t readily available to inmates. The majority of inmates said they weren’t given a COVID test if they asked for one.

"Many of the counties’ policies did not require testing a sample of incarcerated individuals or appropriately separating individuals who are at high risk of contracting Covid-19," the study said. "Jail administrators should adopt relevant policies and make these policies clear to improve access to Covid-19 testing."

Jails in Travis, Caldwell, Hays, Bastrop and Williamson counties didn’t proactively provide face masks to inmates, the report found. Sanitization procedures were also inconsistent.

Overall, jail staff told the study's authors that inmates were given appropriate medical care. Some jails didn’t have policies on waiving medical fees if an inmate needed to see a doctor, though, and some inmates in Williamson County had to pay $40 to see a doctor or pay for medicine by the pill.

Jails also struggled to provide consistent messaging to inmates and staff on COVID protocols. Many inmates weren't aware of policies on isolation, quarantine and testing, and counties didn't provide a single place where people could find protocols, the study found.

All five county jails had isolation policies for COVID-positive inmates, but some didn't provide consistent care. Others relied on hourslong lockdowns, and inmates weren't always provided immediate medical care.

People in Travis County's Del Valle jail made similar comments to KUT earlier this year when cases were at their worst in the facility. Less than half of Travis County inmates surveyed in the study said they received medical treatment if they tested positive for COVID or if they felt sick. Three-quarters of staff said inmates were provided appropriate care, though a few respondents suggested "the medical team seemed reluctant or cold," the study said.

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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