DALLAS – Shelby Hudson just wanted a test. In early December, Hudson, who is incarcerated in the Dallas County Jail, realized she couldn’t smell or taste. She also had a headache and her roommate told her she felt Hudson was “on fire.”
Nonetheless, the 36-year-old said a guard rejected her request for a COVID-19 test. She asked again three days later, then five days later. Each time, she says, her request has been turned down.
Hudson was furious, but not surprised.
“It takes a lot of noise to get anything here,” she told The Daily Beast. “Tylenol, toilet paper, tampons, whatever. You have to scream and scream if you want them to listen.
So when Hudson and a few other women in the 28-man prison “tank” couldn’t get clean clothes for days, they did. The women took off their rusty prison uniforms and spent half an hour chanting, “We want clothes!”
Three days later, they finally got them. Four other women supported Hudson’s claims, and the prison, while denying that a protest ever took place and that maintenance tests were available, attributed the lack of clean laundry to a “communication problem” that , according to a spokesperson, has since been corrected.
It’s times like these that make Hudson believe it will be months before a vaccine is made available to him – if ever it is.
“It feels like we’re all alone here,” she said. “I don’t think the people of this town really care about us, and I know the government members don’t care about us either.
Since the start of the pandemic, more than 200 people incarcerated in Texas have died from the coronavirus. At least nine of those people have already been approved for parole, and 80 percent of those people have not been convicted of a crime.
With their fluid populations, prisons have become particularly rancid incubators for the virus in Texas and across the country. But now that the vaccines are available, guards and inmates say the state is letting them dry out.
“The jail’s response has not changed since March,” a Dallas County jail guard told The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity. “The county reacts only to lawsuits and then reverts to its old ways.”
A spokesperson for Sheriff Marian Brown, who oversees the prison, did not share any plans to offer vaccines to those in prison. Meanwhile, Dallas County Health and Human Services said it was not sure when it would offer vaccines to people in jails, while Dallas Parkland Hospital said it would offer a single-dose vaccine. to inmates once it becomes available.
“A single dose vaccine is needed,” said a spokesperson, “because so many people are leaving prison before a second dose can be given.”
The problem, according to some guards, inmates and epidemiologists, is that Gov. Greg Abbott has deviated from the CDC’s vaccine deployment recommendations, prioritizing the elderly and those with recurring health problems over the police. and teachers. Amid a confused rollout, epidemiologists say some counties are deviating even further from guidelines set by Abbott.
Inmates are, unsurprisingly, at or near the back of the line, even in Democratic-led states with criminal justice reform agendas. But in Texas, what a prison guard – or any essential worker, let alone an inmate – might get (and when) depends on where you live.
“The counties are supposed to follow what the state says, but that’s not what’s happening,” Dr Saritha Bangara, epidemiologist and professor of public health at Austin College, told The Daily Beast. “You can go to a county where the teachers receive them, then drive to another where they can’t. It’s a real mess.
Spokesmen for Dallas and Tarrant counties said they were following Abbott’s direction, but the governor, whose office did not answer questions for this story, has yet to say when the inmates will have access to the vaccine.
Meanwhile, even anti-vaxxers locked behind bars are realizing that shooting may be their best chance for any kind of coronavirus treatment.
“I would get it if I could,” said Adriana Tijerina, another woman in the Dallas County Jail who described herself as a skeptic. “It’s better than nothing, that’s what we have right now.”
Across the country, sheriffs have contributed to the pervasive spread of the coronavirus in the prisons they oversee. Many have refused to wear masks to their inmates, with an Alabama sheriff’s office saying inmates could eat the masks if they had them.
Access to masks is also a recurring problem in Texas prisons. In April, some Dallas detention officers were reportedly told not to wear masks because they could “scare” inmates. Although that policy has since changed, a guard told the Daily Beast that masks are not enforced among those in prison. The same guard said inmates at the Dallas County Jail were given one mask per week, a policy that Bangara called “ridiculous”.
Scientists say flimsy mask procedures are just one of the problems contributing to the virus’s insidious spread inside prison walls.
“It’s impossible to socially distance yourself in prisons,” Bangara said. “That’s what worries me about the incarcerated populations: there are no mitigation strategies, so these people don’t stand a chance. That is why it makes even more sense to put them at the top of the vaccine list. “
Epidemiologists interviewed by The Daily Beast agreed that, given the history of the spread behind bars, those in prison should be high on the vaccine priority list. But even they know that is unlikely to happen under Abbott, a notoriously radical Conservative on “law and order” issues.
“They are at a very high risk of transmission and they have no control over their living conditions,” said Dr. Rodney Rohde, epidemiologist and professor of clinical laboratory science at Texas State University. “Some people may feel like they deserve to be the last, but I hope that as Texans we can agree that everyone deserves a right to health care. They are human beings, and we need to think of them as much as anyone.
Rohde was particularly worried about people in prison (as opposed to prisons), whom he called “vectors of the virus”. Because people are constantly roaming the Texas prison system, he said, it pays to the general public to prioritize incarcerated people. However, as Hudson’s story attests, some inmates have difficulty obtaining basic necessities.
And a vaccine often just seems out of reach.
“There is no plan,” the Dallas County Guard told The Daily Beast. “Some of us started getting it, but we never heard of a bigger plan for the vaccine. A lot of the guards don’t even want to get it. One of my captains said to me, ‘It’s like the Titanic is steered by paddles.’ “
Alison Grinter, a Dallas-based lawyer, isn’t holding her breath that many of her clients will be able to get vaccinated if and when they want. Still, she hopes they’ll take it if it ever becomes an option.
“You are looking at a population that is rightly so suspicious of the system and the people who have run it in the past,” Grinter told The Daily Beast. “Doctors are to black women what the police are to black men. They are skeptical of the vaccine, but they have only been receiving Tylenol and Mucinex for months. So damn yeah, they want it. And they need it.
Grinter is also unhappy with the state’s fragmented response to vaccine distribution, and several scientists interviewed for this story share his frustrations. The federal government left distribution in the hands of the states, and Texas left it in the hands of the counties.
“No one has a clear idea of the vaccine deployment plan yet,” Dr. Rajesh Nandy, epidemiologist and data expert at the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center, told The Daily Beast. “Some people know how it’s distributed in hospitals and labs, but beyond that, there’s a lot of confusion.”
Nandy attends weekly meetings with hospital administrators and public health officials in North Texas, and he says they have yet to discuss the distribution of vaccines in prisons. The scientist is particularly discouraged by what he sees as Texas politics guiding public health decisions.
“The governor’s administration has at times been reluctant to take really strong action,” he said, “and as a result, no one really knows what’s going on with the vaccine.
Like Nandy and Rohde, Bangara said those incarcerated deserve fair treatment. She is not optimistic that they will get it.
“Sadly, politics drives a lot, not science,” Bangara said. “People don’t really care too much about science.”
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