AUSTIN (KXAN) – Melinda Long says she has been treating her son’s mental illness and drug addiction for nearly 15 years. He spent most of his time fearing that drug use would kill him. His only relief over the years was during his repeated stays in prison and rehab.
“We knew he wasn’t getting methamphetamine and drugs,” Long said. “You know? And it didn’t hurt anyone.”
Long’s son, a father of three, was admitted to Williamson County Jail in November 2020. But this time, what Long feared killing his son spread to the walls of Williamson County Jail. Williamson.
“I’m afraid I can’t distinguish it,” Long said. “Fear of other families.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Williamson County Jail has reported outbreaks of COVID-19 among the prison population, unlike other prisons in central Texas. One of his outbreaks is still ongoing.
Outbreaks not only affect the prison population. As of March 2020, more than 9,000 people have been admitted to Williamson County Jail. Like many have been released at the same time. Many of these were released before vaccines were available at the Williamson County Jail.
Despite previous outbreaks, Williamson County Prison Administration waited nearly seven months after the vaccine was made available to medically vulnerable people and people over the age of 65 in Texas, to offer them to people housed in prison.
Deputy Chief of Staff Kathleen Pokluda heads the corrections division of the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office. Pokluda says vaccines were first offered to the prison population on July 26 this year, a time when vaccines have gone from being available to those with pre-existing conditions to being available to children under 12 years.
It also came when the prison was experiencing a growing outbreak of COVID-19 in prison. In late July, Pokluda reported 29 people housed in prison with positive cases and 14 staff members who also tested positive. Throughout the pandemic, six people had been hospitalized due to complications from COVID-19 (at the time of our interview, Pokluda reported that cases in prison were up to 12).
Pokluda says the delay in offering the vaccines for months was because the prison administration only wanted to offer Johnson & Johnson, which she said was more difficult to achieve at the time than Pfizer and Moderna.
“We had her out of prison from February until we saw this rise. We didn’t have COVID, so it wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t a problem, “Pokluda said.” We talked about it, but we had decided we wanted the J&J. “
Two months after the vaccine became available to people over the age of 65 and people with medical vulnerabilities, on Feb. 19, the Travis County Jail began offering the COVID-19 vaccine to the prison population. That was in February. In March, Hays County began offering the vaccine to the prison population. The Bastrop County Prison remained the same in April.
Some prisons, such as those in Blanco and Llano County, say they do not yet offer the vaccine to those housed in their prisons. Both agencies report no COVID-19 cases in prison throughout the pandemic.
In an email statement, Llano County Sheriff Bill Blackburn said, “We were lucky we didn’t have any cases of COVID-19.”
The Texas Prison Standards Commission has been tracking COVID-19 cases in state county prisons throughout the pandemic, including data showing the number of confirmed and suspicious deaths related to COVID-19. But the commission says it stopped requiring agencies to report data in June.
The latest report on June 14 shows that 88 people had an active positive COVID-19 test in Texas prisons. About 4,000 people in Texas prisons were in quarantine. The report confirmed 24 deaths due to COVID-19.
Central Texas prisons also differ in the way people who enter prison are examined. While Travis County quarantines anyone who rejects a COVID-19 test during ingestion, Williamson County Prison Policy is to quarantine anyone who refuses a test and shows symptoms.
“Now, when the outbreak occurred, we weren’t doing temperatures, but now we’re doing temperatures again every day. We do it twice a day: temperatures,” Pokluda said. “We’ve captured people that way, because it can be all they have.”
Long’s son was released from Williamson County Jail in early August. He is now in a rehab center, according to Long. Her mother says she was one of more than 60 people housed in the prison who chose to receive a COVID-19 shot. He was first offered two weeks before his nine-month sentence ended.
“They don’t deserve to die,” Long said. “It simply came to our notice then. I know I couldn’t have handled it. I know your guys couldn’t have handled it. At least they have some hope that their father can improve.