COVID-19 Finally Arrives at Travis County Jail

The Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle (Image courtesy Travis County Sheriff’s Office)

The Travis County jail is four weeks into a COVID-19 outbreak that George Lobb has been predicting since the spring of last year.

As president of a group of criminal defense attorneys known as the Austin Defense Coalition, Lobb is receiving regular reports from the jail. “The kitchen is closed for another 14 days,” he said, reading from notes from a recent ADC meeting. ”Laundry is shut down. Only one hour of recreation, none of it outside. Few responses to medical requests–and those that did took weeks to respond. The folks in quarantine are still getting PB&J sandwiches.”

The COVID outbreak began on Jan. 11 in the larger of the two facilities the Travis County Sheriff’s Office operates – the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle. Of the approximately 1,800 housed there, only 100 are thought to have the virus; they have been placed in quarantine. Another 1,100 inmates are described as “isolated,” which in this case is not much different from “locked down.” Inmates are being kept in their cells 23 hours a day and only allowed 30-minutes shifts in the dayroom, the main space outside their cells where they take showers, use the phone, and socialize.

Kristen Dark, spokesperson for the Sheriff’s office, says the isolation is necessary to stop the spread of the virus and explains that small groups are being rotated into and out of the dayroom around the clock. “It’s feasible and likely happening that many of the units are having two or three 30-minute opportunities spaced out throughout the 24 hour period,” she said. “So it’s the luck of the draw, you might have a 30-minute opportunity at 10:30 in the morning and a 30-minute opportunity at 2 o’clock in the morning. But they try to change it up to make it fair.”

Lobb is angry about the outbreak. He reports that inmates are terrified of catching COVID and that some who do are hiding their symptoms to avoid being moved to the quarantine building. Those in quarantine are not allowed to see their attorneys or anyone else. During the first weekend of the outbreak, when the kitchen was shut down, inmates were served nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They continue to receive mostly sack lunches, like a cold hamburger with a bag of chips.

Before January, Austin was one of the only cities in Texas to have avoided a COVID outbreak at its county jail. Dark stresses that this outbreak is small, with just 3% of inmates testing positive and none having fallen seriously ill. Lobb dismisses those numbers. He says no one can know the size of the outbreak unless all inmates are tested. The Sheriff’s office has resisted universal testing, relying on the guidance of Austin Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott, who has recommended against it to conserve test kits.

Lobb has a low opinion of Escott’s judgment. “Their dipshit guidelines from Austin Public Health only test the symptomatic people,” he said, “when half of those sick with it exhibit zero symptoms! The point being, at the jail, if you have 70 positive cases that means there are at least another 70 that are asymptomatic, maybe more. Where are those 70 people? They’re in other buildings, spreading it.”

On Jan. 26, Lobb and the ADC publicly demanded that the Sheriff’s Office release protocols to explain how they are dealing with COVID-positive inmates and how they plan to vaccinate the inmate population as a whole. They also renewed their demand for universal testing and tracing. Lobb predicts that things will only get worse once the new coronavirus variants get inside the jail. He denies that it would be a logistical challenge to test all 1,800 inmates: “The easiest place to test someone is in a fucking cage! You just go down the numbers like a fucking assembly line. ‘Alright, you ten, line up, one two three four five six seven eight nine ten. Next, let’s go!’”

Regarding universal testing, Dark would only say that the TCSO will continue following the recommendations of Austin Public Health. She described jail conditions as improving but acknowledged that the outbreak is stressing the system. “I spent the morning at the jail facility, at the complex, folding laundry in the laundry area because we don’t have inmate workers in the laundry or kitchen areas,” she said. “I was there from 7:30 until about 11 o’clock folding sheets and uniforms and towels. And some of our command staff was over in the kitchen helping to prep a hot meal for our inmates today. It’s all hands on deck.”