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No Way Out: Here are the Texas prison employees who have died of COVID-19

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.

Elizabeth Jones was afraid of getting COVID-19 while at work in the Texas prison system. 

Her family says she was directly overseeing prisoners sickened by the virus at the Carole Young Unit in Texas City. 

Jones died from COVID-19 over the summer after spending two weeks hospitalized. She was a year shy of retirement, her family says. 

“She was afraid of getting it and she knew that she was in a position that she was most likely to get it,” said her sister, Sandra Hightower. 

A WFAA investigation with The Marshall Project exposes how the coronavirus was allowed to spread through state prisons due to a lackluster response by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

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 deaths of employees and prisoners have been documented on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website. Here is a list of those prison system employees:

Donald Parker, 73, worked nine years for TDCJ and was a food service manager at the Neal Unit in Amarillo. His last day of work was Sept. 25. Three days later, Parker tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized. He died on Oct. 1. He is survived by his two sons, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page 

James Weston Jr., 55, had more than 13 years of service with TDCJ. He was assigned to the Johnston Unit in Winnsboro as a correctional officer. His last day on the job was Aug. 14. Six days later, Weston tested positive for COVID-19 and had been self-quarantining. He was found dead in his home on Aug. 26. Weston, a San Diego native, loved hunting, fishing and the outdoors and had previously worked for Tri-State DeliveryHe is survived by his two sons, according to his obituary

Credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice
James Weston

Herbert Garcia, 57, had nearly 30 years of service with TDCJ and was assigned to the Southern Regional Transportation Unit in Rosharon. On July 15, Garcia tested positive for COVID-19. He was transported the next day to a Sugarland Hospital with complications. Garcia died on Aug. 18. 

Elizabeth Jones, 58, worked 19 years for TDCJ and was assigned to the Carole Young Unit in Dickinson. Her family told WFAA she was directly overseeing patients with COVID-19 and was extremely afraid of contracting the virus. She tested positive for COVID-19 on July 29. Jones was hospitalized on Aug. 6 at Mainland Hospital. Two days later, she was transferred to Parkway Plaza Hospital in Houston. Her daughter also became sick with COVID-19 and was hospitalized as well. Jones died Aug. 14. Her family says she loved to dance, spend time with her family and friend, and had the “heart of a diva.” She is survived by her husband and their children, according to her obituary

Credit: WFAA
Elizabeth Jones, 58, died of COVID-19 while working as a prison correctional officer. Her family also as been denied state benefits.

Walterio Rodriguez, 67, had 11 years of service with TDCJ and was assigned to the Segovia Unit in Edinburg as a chaplain. His last day working there was July 15. He was hospitalized on July 20 in McAllen, where he tested positive for COVID-19. He died on Aug. 13. Rodriguez held various positions with his local church including director of the children’s church and the youth group. He enjoyed spending time with family, hunting at his ranch, playing Scrabble, music, swimming and gardening, according to his obituaryHe is survived by his wife and children. 

Lebouath Boua, 61, worked for the Texas prison system for four years. He was a correctional officer at the Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony. He last worked there on July 10. He tested positive for COVID-19 on July 18. Boua was hospitalized in critical condition on July 29 at Medical City Arlington. He died on Aug. 11.

Charles Chacon Jr., 77, worked 22 years for TDCJ. For the last seven years, he was assigned as an industrial specialist at the McConnell Unit’s garment factory in Beeville. He was hospitalized with COVID symptoms on July 6 at a Beeville hospital. He tested positive for COVID-19 on July 13. On July 22, he was transferred to San Antonio Military Medical Center for treatment. He died on Aug. 11. Chacon was a Vietnam veteran and served his country in the US Navy for more than 20 years, according to his obituaryHe is survived by his wife of 51 years and children. 

Sgt. Richard Holley, 62, had 24 years of service with TDCJand for the last six years, he was assigned to the Goodman Unit in Jasper. After testing positive for COVID-19 he was hospitalized at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Beaumont on July 20. Holley died on Aug. 4. Holley, a native of Puerto Rico, had lived in Jasper for 15 years.  He enjoyed working on home projects together with his wife, Beverly. He liked collecting guns and was a former gun dealer. He is survived by his wife and children, according to his obituary

Eric Johnson, 37, had more than 18 years of service with TDCJ as a correctional officer. He was assigned to the Byrd Unit in Huntsville. After testing positive for COVID-19, he was hospitalized on July 26 at Bryan hospitalJohnson died the next day. His wife, Charity, and their four children also contracted COVID-19.  He had his wife had married in October 2019. She also works as a correctional officer. Johnson’s family told WFAA that he was around prisoners who had tested positive for COVID-19, and that they believe he got the virus on the job. 

RELATED: Texas first responders who die from COVID-19 denied state benefits

Credit: WFAA
Eric Johnson, 37, a father of four, died of COVID-19 while working as a Texas correctional officer. The state has denied his family benefits.

Ruben Martinez48, had nearly two years of service with TDCJ. He was assigned to the Lopez State Jail in Edinberg. Martinez tested positive for COVID-19 on July 13.  Six days later, he began having complications from the virus and was admitted to an Edinburg hospital where he died on July 26. 

Sandra Rivera, 50, had more than seven years of service with TDCJ and was assigned to the Torres Unit near San Antonio. Rivera worked as an assistant commissary manager. After testing positive for COVID-19, Rivera was hospitalized July 7 in San Antonio. She died on July 21. 

Jackson Pongay, 56, had more than four years of service with TDCJ. He was assigned to the Lychner State Jail in Humble as a correctional officer. His last day working in the facility was June 25. After testing positive for COVID-19, Pongay was hospitalized on July 5 in Houston. He died on July 19. 

Jerry Esparza, 46, had more than 25 years of service with TDCJ and was assigned as a correctional officer at the Jester III Unit in Richmond. He became sick following an outbreak of COVID-19 among staff and inmates. He was hospitalized on June 17 at a Sugarland hospitalHe died there on July 15. He is survived by his wife and four children. 

Kenneth Harbin, 60, had more than 30 years of service with TDCJ. He was assigned to the Daniel Unit in Snyder as a correctional officer. After testing positive for COVID-19, he was hospitalized on June 28. Despite showing signs of improvement, he died on July 4Harbin, a Snyder native, began his career at the Ramsey Unit in Angleton before returning home to Snyder as one of the first officers to open the Daniel Unit. He is survived by his children. 

Thomas Ogungbire, 54, was a 10-year-veteran of TDCJ and worked at the Hutchins State Jail in Dallas as a correctional officer. Ogungbire called in sick on April 14. On April 20, he tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized with symptoms. On May 17, Ogungbire was transferred to Baylor Hospital in Dallas. He died June 11. 

Credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Thomas Ogunbire

Maria Mendez, 59, was employed by TDCJ for almost 11 years and worked as a correctional officer at the Wynne Unit. She was hospitalized after work on April 12. She was transferred on April 15 to Methodist Hospital in Houston, where she was placed on a ventilator. She tested positive for COVID-19 and died May 8. 

Credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Maria Mendez

James Coleman, 53, was a 22-year-veteran of TDCJ and worked at the Middleton Unit in Abilene. He last worked on April 26. The next day, he collapsed at home. He was taken to the hospital, where he tested positive for the virus. He died on April 28. Coleman, an Abilene native, is survived by his wife 

Credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice
James Coleman

Coy D. Coffman Jr., 65, was employed by TDCJ for nine years and worked as a correctional officer at the Telford Unit in New Boston. On April 14, he began suffering symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and was tested the next day. On April 17, he was admitted to a local hospital in Texarkana due to possible complications from COVID-19. Coffman’s test returned positive two days later. He died on April 26. Coffman served in the U.SArmy Military PoliceAccording to his obituary, hinvestigated war crimes in Desert Storm and served on the security detail for various senators and military officials. He was a Tulsa Police officer and criminal justice professor at Eastern Oklahoma State College. He is survived by his wife and children. 

Credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Coy Coffman

Akbar Shabazz, 70, was TDCJ’s first Muslim prison chaplain. He served initially as a TDCJ volunteer and joined the agency as an employee in 1977. He served as Regional Area Muslim Chaplain, coordinating Taleem classes, Jum'mah services and leading the coordination of yearly Ramadan observances. In 2012, he received his honorary doctorate degree in Divinity from the Trinity International Seminary. 

Credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Akbar Shabazz

Jonathon Keith Goodman, 52, was employed by TDCJ for 14 years. He was a correctional officer at the Clements Unit in AmarilloColeman’s last day at work was April 15. Two days later, he was found collapsed in his home after suffering an apparent stroke. He was taken to the hospital in critical condition. Testing showed he had COVID-9. He died April 21after being removed from life support. He is survived by his wife and children. His wife also works as a correctional officer. 

Credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Jonathon Goodman

Kelvin Wilcher, 49was assigned to the Estelle Unit in Huntsville.  On April 1he went to a Houston hospital and suffered a cardiac event. A tested positive for COVID-19. He died on April 6 He was a U.S. Navy veteran and had served with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for one year. He is survived by his wife and children. 

Credit: Courtesy photo
Kevin Wilcher was the first Texas prison employee to die from COVID-19.

Gerald “Jerry” Bedison, 22, had more than seven years of service with TDCJ, and was assigned as a chaplain at the Neal Unit in Amarillo. On Nov. 5, Bedison tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized. He died Nov. 16.

Rodrick Rodgers, 45had nearly 11 years of service with TDCJ. He was employed as a food service manager at the Eastham Unit in Huntsville. He tested positive on Nov. 4 and was hospitalized in Conroe. He died Nov. 11 in the intensive care unit.  

Michael Harper56, died Dec. 1, 2020. A maintenance supervisor, Harper had over 22 years of service with TDCJ. He was assigned to the Skyview/Hodge complex in Rusk. On Oct. 13, Harper sought treatment for COVID symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19. He was initially hospitalized on Oct. 19 at a Tyler hospital after suffering respiratory complications. On Nov. 3, he was placed on a ventilator. 

Kenneth Russell, 84, died Dec. 2, 2020. He worked in the prison system for more than 10 years and was assigned to the Smith Unit in Lamesa. Prison officials said Russell tested positive on Nov. 11 and was admitted into a Lubbock hospital on Nov. 19. Russell is survived by his wife of 50 years and six children. 

More from our investigation:

No Way Out: COVID Behind Bars

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

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 prisoners who have died of COVID-19

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

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 Bars. Keri Blakinger is a staff writer with The Marshall Project based in Houston. Her work has focused on prisons and prosecutors.