Texas prisons, halfway houses grow more restricted under pandemic measures

HOUSTON (CNS) — Many impacted by pandemic restrictions may feel imprisoned, but Texas prisons and halfway houses are truly locked down as COVID-19-related deaths have risen.

According to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice report, 166 inmates and 21 employees, including guards and chaplains, statewide have died to date from complications of the virus.

Those deaths were out of the 23,362 inmates and 5,438 staff who have tested positive for the coronavirus, stated the department’s website update. More than two-thirds of inmates who died from COVID-19 complications have been Black or Hispanic, news outlets reported.

The general inmate population is a third Black, a third Hispanic and a third white.

On Nov. 11, Texas became the first state with more than 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston’s Office of Correctional Ministries usually provides Masses, occasional weekend spiritual retreats and gifts to prisoners. But most ministries have been locked out for the past several months with no volunteers allowed for the foreseeable future, including Christmas holidays, said Deacon Alvin Lovelady, correctional ministries director.

“Morale and spirits behind the walls are low and there is not much we can do for them with the COVID restrictions. There are no Masses, no services or Bible study,” he told the Texas Catholic Herald, the archdiocesan newspaper.

“There are still some units that are in total or semi-lockdown, which means no moving around 23 hours a day or no more than 5 to 10 gathered in one location,” the deacon said.

Prerecorded Masses were given to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to distribute to prisons around the state.

“We’re trying to minister in other ways, but since prisoners cannot get on the internet, we can’t even do Zoom-type seminars. And the only way we can provide them with books is if we order them straight from the publisher to send to the prisons,” Deacon Lovelady said.

That is how the “Let Us Celebrate” missalettes are still arriving to inmates, he said. Chicago-based GIA Publications publishes the missalettes.

“We also just received approval to give copies of a daily devotional ‘Do Something Beautiful for God’ by Mother Teresa that has an introduction by Matthew Kelly,” he said.

That may be one of the few Christmas gifts that come into prisons that won’t even be visited by caroling groups this year, he said.

But halfway houses in Houston are still receiving up to a half-dozen released inmates a week after they quarantine for two weeks in an isolated part of prison, Deacon Lovelady said. After 14 days in quarantine, they are given “exit training” to prepare for their halfway houses.

Tony Van Derbur, halfway house director of the Catholic Creations Inc. Isaiah House and Providence House, said: “We’ve been very blessed that we haven’t had any COVID cases since last February.”

At that time before COVID-19 testing, several residents and staff did come down with fever, aches and coughs, he said, but everyone recovered. Since then, residents are all required to wash their hands frequently, have their temperatures tested, and are supplied with sanitizer.

Van Derbur said donations of clothing, bedding such as sheets and pillow cases, and gift cards help the residents start a new life.

“Thanks to all those who donate for thinking of us. If we don’t need a particular item, we share with other houses that may need it more,” he said.

As of Nov. 12, there were 10,402,274 confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S.; the death toll stood at 241,808. According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, new U.S. cases topped 144,000 Nov. 11, setting a one-day record. COVID-19 patients in ICUs across the country totaled 12,518, the highest number since May 5.

In New York state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced that all restaurants, bars and gyms statewide have to close at 10 p.m. starting Nov. 13. Oklahoma, North Carolina, Nebraska, North Dakota, Illinois and New Mexico are among at least nine states reporting record numbers of new cases.

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Zuñiga writes for the Texas Catholic Herald, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

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