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‘I Am Feeling Scared And Alone.’ The Reopening Of America Leaves Behind Prisoners Who Remain At Risk Of COVID-19

Texas’s governor has proclaimed that ‘safe practices save lives,’ but prisoners say that advice can’t be followed in the state’s prisons, where unsanitary conditions have left the novel coronavirus ‘spreading vigorously.’

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When Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that the state would reopen a wide variety of businesses, from bars to rodeos to child care centers, he dismissed a spike in COVID-19 infections as the result of increased testing. Nevertheless, he cautioned that Texans should continue social distancing, and practicing sanitation and strong hygiene habits. 

“It is a fact that these safe practices save lives,” Abbott said.

Those instructions are virtually meaningless to the more than 160,000 people incarcerated across the state—and, by extension, to people who work in correctional facilities and then go home to their families and communities after work. Even as Abbott loosens restrictions, prisoners in the state’s detention centers continue to report dire conditions inside those facilities. Prisoners can’t stay apart from one another. They use the same bathrooms and phones. Many eat together or share crowded cells and dorms. They often lack basic hygiene supplies, like liquid hand soap and sanitizer. They’re in close proximity to guards, who can’t social distance if they’re breaking up a fight or escorting a sick prisoner to a medical facility. 

“This public health crisis shows that keeping more people behind bars doesn’t help public safety,” Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Justice Program, said. “Even though places are reopening … it’s really important not to forget people behind bars. Cases rise day after day. It’s virulent behind bars.”

And that affects surrounding communities. According to a recent analysis by the Brennan Center, 40 percent of prisons are in counties with fewer than 50,000 residents and an average of 2.5 intensive care unit beds per county. Some of the larger facilities employ between 500 and 1,000 guards. The Brennan Center notes that 41 out of 50 states reported COVID-19 cases in their prisons by mid-May. 

“You have large numbers of people housed together,” Eisen said. “We also know so many people in the system are elderly or with illnesses. Many prisoners are elderly with poor healthcare. Forty percent have chronic health conditions.” 

Texas has 163,628 prisoners scattered across the state and more than 30,000 in state jails in urban and rural areas. There are also 14 large federal facilities

As of Friday, more than 64,000 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Texas. More than 1,600 deaths were reported. Officials and advocates have called on jails and prisons to release people to lessen the danger to prison population, staff and surrounding communities (after a 14-day quarantine to prevent spread). In March, Attorney General William Barr called on federal facilities to release some nonviolent, at-risk prisoners. But many state and federal prisons have not complied with that directive, failing to release prisoners—even very sick ones—who are very unlikely to reoffend. 

Nicole, who requested that her real name not be used because she feared retaliation, has Stage 4 breast cancer. At the end of April, she was told that she’d be discharged from FMC Carswell, a federal medical prison facility in Texas, following a 14-day quarantine. But she was never put in quarantine for release (she entered quarantine for a suspected shingles infection, she says) and has been told—without explanation—that she won’t be going home anytime soon. 

“I am feeling so discouraged,” she wrote The Appeal from Carswell. “I don’t understand how they can do discharge papers and I’m still sitting here. I was told today not to ask any more questions because no one knows any answers.” 

Nicole has been doing regular chemo treatments. But for three weeks in late April and May—also without explanation—Nicole says that she and a few other women weren’t administered their regular treatment, which has her doubly worried about her health. 

“I had a mental breakdown this morning because I can’t get no answers about my chemo treatments and the knots in my legs are getting worse, the knot in my groin is so sore I can’t touch it, and I have infection coming out from under my finger-nails,” she wrote. 

Kelsey Franks’s brother, Coty Franks, is serving a 10-year sentence on a drug conspiracy charge. He told his sister that conditions inside FMC Fort Worth are dire. 

“Due to the rapid growth of the COVID-19, it is spreading vigorously and also taking lives, the prisoners are unable to go outside to get fresh air, they are unable to get visits,” Kelsey told The Appeal. “Coty can’t even use hand sanitizer or alcohol-based products to keep clean and safe, the inmates are eating bologna sandwiches every day and also frozen chicken sandwiches that they have to let sit and thaw before they can eat them.” 

According to his sister, Coty has been infected. 

“The inmates have limited bathrooms so every one is touching the same things,” she said. “With the rate the virus is spreading we are concerned about Coty’s health. Coty tested positive for the virus and is sick.” 

Prisoners at FCI Seagoville, near Dallas, say they also are scared. “I am emotionally drained with all this. One day we get good news or a real good rumor and the next day it feels like we have received another death sentence,” wrote Randall Scott Anderson. “My health is very bad.  I have a very weakened immune system and the stress from this does not benefit my health at all.” 

“I’m feeling OK but, at age 76, I do fear for my life,” said Stan Rothenberg from Seagoville.

At Carswell, women who are serving time beside Nicole say they’re deeply concerned about the risk of contracting COVID-19. 

“I am feeling fine, but scared,” Holly Leanne Frantzen tells the Appeal from Carswell. “I know that they do not care about us. Of course I am worried about my health if I stay here.” 

“I am feeling scared and alone…” wrote Windy Lynn Panzo. “I was not sentenced to a death sentence, but 25 years for a drug crime and position [sic] of a gun that was NEVER used in anything. … I worry I’ll never make it home from here as many have not over the time I have been here.”