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'Tinderbox waiting for the spark': WFAA investigation shows how COVID-19 spread through Texas prisons

A joint investigation with The Marshall Project exposes how COVID-19 was allowed to spread due to a lackluster response by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

WFAA has partnered with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system, to produce No Way Out: COVID Behind BarsKeri Blakinger is a staff writer with The Marshall Project based in Houston. Her work has focused on prisons and prosecutors.

On a spring day in North Texas, Russell Hill sat down to watch his friends play dominoes. As they clacked the game pieces on the dayroom table, the men engaged in their usual pastime as prisoners at the Hutchins Unit: Dreaming of life on the outside.

Then Hill piped up: “I’m cold.”

But it was hot in the Dallas prison, and the 60-year-old’s friends took notice.

“You might be sick,” Janarieo Dillihunt remembered telling him. Hill pointed out that he hadn’t been anywhere – and besides, at that point in mid-April there were no known coronavirus cases in the 2,300-man lock-up.

But Hill would become one of the first.

In the days that followed, the usually-fit former Marine stopped eating and drinking. He turned pale and his friends said he barely moved from his bunk. Again and again, they tried to get him help.

“That man dies, that's on you,” Dillihunt told one officer. “And he was like, ‘There’s nothing I can do about it.’”

By the end of the week, Hill was dead.

The Texarkana man is one of at least 168 people who died of COVID-19 in the Texas prison system, where the pandemic hit much harder than the rest of the state. By the start of October, the infection rate there was 490% higher than Texas as a whole, and the death rate was more than twice the national average. That’s partly because prisons are prime incubators for the disease, as social distancing and basic contagion protections are largely impossible behind bars.

An investigation by WFAA and The Marshall Project showed that it’s also because the agency’s lackluster response allowed the virus to spread, potentially exacerbating outbreaks and putting surrounding communities at risk.

RELATED: TIMELINE: The spread of COVID-19 in Texas prisons

For this project, reporters reviewed dozens of policy documents, internal reports, and leaked emails, along with hundreds of letters from prisoners and a handful of images and recordings captured on contraband cell phones. Interviews with more than 110 staff, prisoners and their family members found that:

  • Prison employees reported being forced to share and reuse protective gear throughout the pandemic and well into the fall, despite the fact that officials said they had enough equipment on hand before the outbreaks began.
  • The agency did not consistently isolate infected prisoners, or quarantine people long enough – even after the executive director was warned their procedures might be inadequate.
  • At some units, prisoners said that instead of getting medical treatment they were put in solitary confinement and given over-the-counter medication. Others said that staff ignored requests for help, including those from men who later died.
  • Even though the prison system locked down dozens of facilities to control outbreaks, officials undermined containment efforts by transferring prisoners while they were sick and forcing staff to fill in at infected units hours away.
  • Staffing vacancies soared as hundreds of workers caught the virus at once or quit out of concern for their own safety. At some particularly understaffed units, cellphone video showed that prisoners began starting fires several times a day to get attention when they said they weren't fed or allowed to call home.

Top prison officials declined to interview for this story, instead deferring comment to spokesman Jeremy Desel.

“From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has worked with one goal in mind: protecting the health and safety of the offenders in our care and the employees and contractors who work for this agency,” Desel said in a video statement late this year.

He said the prison system "remains diligent" in health and safety protocols, which have been "key to continuing the downward trend that we're seeing of COVID inside our system."

By early December, more than 33,000 staff and prisoners had caught the virus, and in addition to the more than 100 prisoner fatalities, at least 26 staff members died after catching COVID-19. The agency’s handling of the pandemic also sparked a lawsuit and three-week trial, and drew harsh condemnation from union officials, outside experts and even a federal judge who described conditions at one prison as “nothing short of a human tragedy.”

The lawsuit is still winding its way through the courts, but now with the next state legislative session on the horizon, some advocates and elected officials are hoping to see more action from lawmakers.

“The buck stops at the legislature,” said Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston). “If the prisons are not running correctly, if things are underfunded, that is our fault. And I fully take responsibility for my share of the blame – and we're going to do something about it.”

‘Waiting for the spark’

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice was struggling long before COVID-19 breached the walls. In recent years, the prison system grappled with inmate killings, employee arrests, natural disasters, evidence-planting scandals, rising suicide numbers and a steady stream of troubling lawsuits.

They were all warning signs of Texas-sized trouble: At the start of the year, TDCJ held roughly 141,000 prisoners in 106 facilities, more than any other state. With staff turnover rates hovering around 30% and more than a third of officer jobs vacant at dozens of units, the hulking agency was ill-equipped to deal with a new crisis.

As Scott Medlock, an Austin-based lawyer behind several high-profile lawsuits against the agency, described it, the prison system was a “tinderbox waiting for the spark.”

That spark was the coronavirus.

When the disease first hit Texas in the beginning of March, the prison system did not yet have a policy in place for handling a pandemic, and elected officials worried the agency wouldn’t act promptly – or at all.

“My contacts said the prison system wasn’t going to do anything about it,” said Palestine Mayor Steve Presley, whose rural East Texas community is home to five prisons. “They were not going to do anything to stop the spread.”

When they created a written policy a few weeks later, it didn’t allow prisoners access to some basic disease prevention measures like hand sanitizer. Officials said the product’s high alcohol content would be a safety risk, even though men at one unit had jobs bottling the same product they were banned from using.

As the pandemic progressed, the lack of access to sanitizer became particularly problematic at prisons plagued by water outages, including the Smith Unit in Lamesa, where one officer told WFAA and The Marshall Project she got in trouble for letting kitchen workers use hand sanitizer when they couldn’t wash their hands due to plumbing problems. She said she later quit over concerns for her own safety.

Even after the first cases began cropping up behind bars, prisoners, guards and – according to a leaked April 1 email – most medical staff were banned from wearing masks. At the time, the agency pointed out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t yet recommend them for everyone.

But employees weren’t always sure if they’d end up in contact with positive cases, so some officers tried bringing in their own face coverings but were threatened with write-ups, according to union leader Cheri Siegelin.

“They were being told that they were going to face disciplinary issues for wearing masks to protect themselves,” Siegelin said, “because their supervisors didn't want them to incite panic in the offender population.”

Yet the prisoners were already concerned enough that on March 30 men at the Pack Unit, a geriatric prison in Navasota, filed a class-action lawsuit. Represented by Medlock and a legal team, the prisoners accused the agency of a “grossly inadequate” response that they said fell far short of CDC guidelines.

The following week, the first prisoner died.

RELATED: No Way Out: Here are the Texas prisoners who died of COVID-19

Around the same time, the agency started locking down units with active outbreaks and issuing prison-made cloth masks to all employees. Even so, prisoners still appeared maskless in a promotional video about their mask-making efforts.

Those masks could help stop the spread, but they wouldn’t work to protect the wearer. Some employees grumbled about the agency’s apparent reluctance to distribute the 100,000 protective N95 masks TDCJ officials said they had in storage. Several staffers raised similar concerns about gloves and other equipment.

One officer said she had to share a plastic face shield with her partner when they escorted a sick prisoner to an outside hospital.

But difficulties getting protective gear — which have continued into the fall and winter, as staff report sharing and reusing gowns and masks — have felt all too familiar to some officers.

In 2017, mumps outbreaks ran through a handful of units in South Texas, and afterward, lawmakers told the prison system to make sure they were prepared with gear and distribution procedures the next time around.

Three years later, officers say they weren’t.

“Even though they’re saying there is, there’s not enough PPE out there,” Jeff Ormsby, the Texas corrections leader of the American Federation State, County and Municipal Employees union, said in the spring. “They're giving staff cloth masks. It’s embarrassing, is what it is.”

‘I hope I don’t get this stuff’

Before he fell sick, Russell Hill wasn’t the type to complain. His years in the Marines made him disciplined and orderly – the sort of man whose family remembered him ironing his pockets and underwear.

Yet he also had a spontaneous streak, and his long-time girlfriend Shirley Carrigan fondly recalled going on aimless drives together at 2 a.m. when they had nothing better to do.

Not far from that spontaneity was a love of good times – and alcohol.

According to his girlfriend, Hill got into heavy drinking during his time in the service, while he was stationed in Hawaii. After coming home to East Texas, records show he racked up a series of mostly low-level arrests, as well as a drug charge that landed him in prison for two years in the late 1990s. Then when he caught a felony drunk driving charge two decades later, he found himself headed back to prison, this time for a seven-year sentence.

That’s the sort of sentence that can end a relationship, but Carrigan and Hill stayed together, through letters and phone calls. And when he professed that he was a changed man and wanted to get married, she said she’d consider it. Once he got out.

With another parole review coming up, it seemed possible that freedom might not be too far away.

Even when the coronavirus hit Texas, Carrigan wasn’t worried. Because Hill was behind bars, she thought he’d be safe.

“He never mentioned to me how bad it was up there,” she said. “He just was saying: ‘I hope I don't get this stuff.’”

Questionable quarantines and community spread

Even before Hill started worrying about the virus, officials realized they needed more testing. The agency’s medical director laid out plans to test 3,000 prisoners at five hard-hit units as early as April 13, according to a leaked email obtained by WFAA and The Marshall Project. 

But there’s no evidence that actually happened; one week after the swab tests were to be administered, the TDCJ website still indicated less than 950 tests had been performed.

By early May, more than 70% of prisoners tested had confirmed cases of the virus, a positivity rate so high that experts said it was indicative of a need for widespread testing behind bars. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until May 12 – two months after Gov. Greg Abbott declared COVID-19 a disaster – that the agency was able to make that happen, by sending “strike teams” to every unit to oversee testing. The agency spokesman pointed out that was at least partly because it was difficult to get enough tests in the early weeks of the pandemic.

When the state finally got them, the spokesman said, TDCJ was first in line.

The testing was a gargantuan effort, but its efficacy in mitigating the spread of disease may have been undermined by the agency’s spotty quarantine and isolation procedures. Text messages later cited by the Supreme Court showed that agency director Bryan Collier had been warned as early as April that 14 days wasn’t necessarily enough time and their protocols were “questionable at best.”

At some units, prisoners reported that officials lumped possibly exposed men in with those who’d tested positive, didn’t retest sick people to confirm that they were no longer shedding the virus, and sometimes sent positive cases back to regular housing just days after testing.

In late August, a series of leaked emails obtained by WFAA and The Marshall Project showed that staff were instructed to move people still testing positive back into regular housing, as long they’d completed their isolation period and were not symptomatic.

The prison spokesman defended the agency’s isolation protocols as “above and beyond” CDC recommendations.

Even the agency’s critics acknowledge that better quarantine procedures may not have been feasible in some units, simply because the prisons are not designed for it. Many rely on dormitory-style housing where it is not possible to isolate sick people, so officials restricted men to their dorms instead, a mitigation effort that presented its own problems.

At the Pack Unit, the men in the 30-person wheelchair dorms were responsible for doing their own janitorial work. According to court testimony, at one point officials assigned a blind man in a wheelchair to be a dorm janitor tasked with ensuring cleanliness during the pandemic. In court, the unit’s assistant warden testified that he didn’t see a problem with that practice because a disabled janitor “could put a broom against his neck and push it with a wheelchair.”

Despite those shortcomings, the agency did take some significant steps to stop the spread of disease, cutting off outside visitors, shutting down most in-person programs and suspending new prisoner intake from jails. But they continued transfers between prisons, a practice that some elected officials feared would exacerbate outbreaks and increase the odds of the disease creeping out into the community.

After political leaders in Palestine complained, TDCJ transferred more than 100 infected men from two lock-ups in East Texas several hours away to prisons in Brazoria County, a move that brought the sick men closer to the agency’s hospital in Galveston but also risked bringing the disease to a different community.

“What they’re doing is just spreading it into our population,” Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta said in April.

Though officials have said prisoner movement substantially decreased during the pandemic, it’s unclear to what extent that happened and when, as the agency has fought requests for data on transfers, citing the pending lawsuit as reason to withhold the information. 

Recently, the spokesman defended the transfers to Brazoria, saying the agency followed “proper protocols” for pandemic safety and that the moves didn’t spark an outbreak in local units.

‘As long as he’s breathing’

After Hill first caught a chill, his condition deteriorated quickly. By the next day, his friend Dillihunt felt sick, too, so he wrote his wife to tell her they’d both fallen ill.

When the letter arrived, Dillihunt was already feeling better, but Hill was in bad shape, shivering, coughing and refusing to eat. When a guard came by for count, Dillihunt flagged him down. But as soon as the officer saw the pile-up of uneaten food in Hill’s cell, he accused him of stealing sack lunches.

In the following days, Dillihunt said he repeatedly tried to warn officers how sick his friend was.

“He’s OK as long as he’s breathing,” he remembered one telling him.

It’s not clear exactly what happened when Hill finally got to the infirmary on April 14, but there’s no indication he received a COVID-19 test before he went back to his dorm.

Then, just before midnight on April 16, records show Hill was sent back to the infirmary because he couldn’t catch his breath. According to Dillihunt, the older man seemed to be delusional and didn’t know where he was.

Finally, officials called 911 and took Hill to a hospital where doctors discovered his lungs and kidney were failing. They put him on oxygen, and a scan found that his lungs had “groundglass opacities,” a typical sign of COVID-19, according to hospital records.

Then he tested positive for the virus.

He died two days later.

Deteriorating conditions and desperate measures

As the disease spread, prisoners grew more desperate. By June, more than 6,500 had caught the virus, staffing levels were the lowest in recent memory, a third of the prison system was on lockdown, and conditions behind bars were continuing to deteriorate.

Repeatedly, prisoners reported receiving little medical treatment other than isolation and temperature checks.

When prisoner Beatrice Vasquez tested positive at the Murray Unit in Gatesville, she said a medical staffer just told her to take deep breaths every hour and drink water. “My temperature was taken,” she wrote in a letter in May. “I was at 97 and they left. That’s it. I was given a small pack of non-aspirins and nothing more.”

At the Beto Unit in Palestine, prisoners grew so desperate that records show one man who tested positive jumped off the third floor of his unit and hanged himself rather than deal with the virus in prison.

For some, it was not the virus but the lockdowns that led to desperate behavior. Just after officials locked all the men down at the Clements Unit in Amarillo, one prisoner allegedly killed his cellmate and hid the man’s body in his cell for several days before the guards realized what had happened. At Briscoe Unit in South Texas, prisoners defeated the locking mechanisms and slipped out of their cells to take a guard hostage.

At several units, men began starting fires on their housing pods multiple times per day in what some described as an effort to attract attention from higher-ups when the officers assigned to their units did not feed them or denied them access to things like phones and showers. 

Sometimes, prisoners with contraband cell phones recorded the conflagrations as well as fights and other signs of unrest, apparently recording the chaos freely without any intervention from the overextended staff.

“The place is completely lawless and the guards, they come around every once in a while,” said one prisoner, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “For the most part, you go hours, literally eight, nine hours without seeing a guard.”

The prison spokesman disputed that account.

“There will always be some level of dissent in a prison environment but that has been very small especially considering the pressures and uncertainty stemming from the pandemic,” Desel said.

By July, prison data showed the agency had more than 5,000 vacant corrections officer positions, a vacancy rate of over 21%. On top of that, officials told inmate families in a conference call that another 1,000 employees were out due to sickness and quarantine, and units were struggling to fulfill basic functions like distributing mail. To make up the soaring vacancies, agency leaders required staff to fill in at other units, including units with active coronavirus cases.

“That’s how I got it,” one Huntsville-area officer told WFAA and The Marshall Project. He asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the record and feared retaliation.

“I was put in an area that I did not know until probably 45 minutes to the end of my shift that had confirmed cases of corona,” he added.

This year, the agency spokesman has repeatedly defended the practice of shuffling around staff as necessary and said it did not contribute to the spread of the disease. 

But several officers we spoke to for this investigation disagreed, including the Huntsville-area officer who said his entire family got sick.

“My son has severe asthma,” the officer said. “When I brought it home to him, I sat up multiple nights crying because I thought he was gonna die.”

‘Just a Number’

Russell Hill’s family did not suspect there was anything wrong until April 16, when his girlfriend got a text message from the family of Janarieo Dillihunt — the man who’d been playing dominoes next to Hill when he first caught chills.

“Hi Ms. Shirley,” the text read. “I just got a letter from my husband and he said Russell is sick (he’s) just been laying around in bed. They’re on lockdown and my husband said the guards gave it to the inmates and so I am calling (this) morning to speak with the warden or somebody to have them check on him. So you may want to call up there too.”

Frantic, Carrigan said she phoned the prison but couldn’t get any answers. So she called Hill’s brother and told him to try calling too. For three days, they called again and again. It wasn’t until April 19 that they heard back – when Carrigan got a call from the hospital prison chaplain.

“I was just calling to let you know that Russell had passed,” she recalls him telling her. She said he had to be wrong.

But he wasn’t.

She frantically called the rest of the Hill’s family, and they got in touch with the unit warden who confirmed the bad news: He told them Russell Hill had died of pneumonia. He’d been in the hospital for two whole days, and his family had never been notified.

“Next-of-kin are not generally notified of hospitalizations unless the inmate is in critical or grave condition,” said Desel, the prison system’s spokesman. “There are situations when those notifications cannot be made before an inmate dies.”

To Carrigan, that lack of communication is still baffling all these months later.

“I don't want to say they didn't care,” she said. “But I kind of feel like he’s just a number to them.”

‘How did you deal with this?”

By some measures, the Texas prison system appears to be in a better place than it was a few months ago. 

According to TDCJ data, by mid-December the population was down and there were just over 1,700 prisoners with active infections – a little over half of what the agency was reporting at the end of July.

Officials say they’ve distributed more than 1.1 million N95 and KN95 masks. And now, the nation is readying for vaccine distribution that could mean an end is in sight.

But looking back, some see the high death toll as something that was avoidable.

“At the end of the day, the way TDCJ and any other state agencies will be measured is not just how you reacted at first, but what did you do throughout the pandemic?” asked Rep. Wu, the Houston legislator. “How did you deal with this?”

RELATED: No Way Out: Prisoners are setting fires to protest pandemic conditions

That is a question the courts are still grappling with. After a three-week trial over the summer, the judge overseeing the Pack Unit lawsuit found that the agency’s response included only the “most basic steps that TDCJ could have taken to prevent mass death within the prison walls on an unimaginable scale.”

Though he sided with the prisoners in a scathing ruling, TDCJ appealed his decision and the case is now awaiting a ruling from the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. But even if the courts side with the prisoners, that would only impact one of the state’s roughly 100 lock-ups. To some, it seems the more lasting changes must come from state lawmakers.

“The solutions lie in the legislature going back and doing an in-depth study of everything that has happened,” said Steve Presley, the Palestine mayor. “This is really a symptom of a problem that’s gone on for decades with the prison system, of them feeling like they could do whatever they want to do and they seem to be able to get away with doing that.”

For Shirley Carrigan, that sentiment may have a ring of truth to it. She was hoping to welcome Hill home soon, optimistic that he would make parole this time around. Instead - on what should have been his 61st birthday - his loved ones gathered at a park in Texarkana to reminisce about the rabble-rousing former Marine and release blue balloons in his honor.

“He was supposed to be getting out,” Carrigan said. “But, you know, he never made it.”

More from our investigation:

No Way Out: COVID Behind Bars

TIMELINE: The spread of COVID-19 in Texas prisons

How the Texas prison system tracks COVID-19 cases, deaths

Texas prisoners describe what it's like inside lock-up during the coronavirus pandemic

Here are the Texas prison employees who have died of COVID-19

Here are the Texas prisoners who have died of COVID-19

No Way Out: How the Texas prison system tracks COVID-19 cases, deaths

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