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Women at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville, Texas, sewed face masks in a video produced by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Texas Prison Officers: We Asked For Face Masks In 2017. COVID-19 Got Here First.

A state spokesman says the system has more than 100,000 N95 masks, but it’s unclear how many have been given to officers or prisoners.

Three years before the coronavirus pandemic, corrections officers in Texas begged the prison system to prepare for such a disaster. A series of mumps outbreaks had just swept through three lock-ups near the southern border, and the worried staff began complaining to their union reps: the agency wasn’t answering their questions, they said. They feared bringing the disease back into their communities, worried they lacked training on how to protect themselves and said they couldn’t get adequate protective gear because they’d been told the agency couldn’t afford it.

Union officials eventually took their complaints to state lawmakers. Outbreaks continued, and a fews months later legislators made several recommendations, asking the state’s prison agency to ensure everyone understood appropriate infection control measures and had access to enough personal protective equipment, like high-quality masks and gloves.

That was in 2018. But union leaders and prison workers say not much had changed by the time COVID-19 arrived this March.

“It angers me,” said Cheri Siegelin, a former officer who now works with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas union organization. “This is life and death, this is not just everyday routine behind the fence.”

A prison system spokesman pushed back on those claims, saying the agency is always concerned for both its workers and those in its custody, and also that ample protective equipment has been available—for those deemed to need it.

“We don’t have a PPE issue as far as supply goes at the moment,” spokesman Jeremy Desel said last week, using the acronym for personal protective equipment. “We’ve had well over 100,000 N95 masks, and we have 2.5 million pairs of gloves.” More has since arrived, but it’s not clear how much of that equipment has been handed out to corrections staff, and he said those figures include gear kept for the agency’s medical providers. Some officers said they have not been permitted to use equipement designated for medical staff.

For officers who complained they didn’t have adequate protection equipment, Desel said: “That’s because they didn’t need it,” citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that recommend prioritizing N95 masks only for officers in direct contact with people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.

Several officers told The Marshall Project they have not always had protective equipment when they needed it, including an officer who said she had to share one plastic face shield with her partner when they escorted a sick prisoner to a hospital.

The lack of respirator masks is not unique to Texas lock-ups; other prisons, medical providers and first responders across the country have grappled with shortages. The federal prison system recently drew criticism for trying to fill that gap by ordering knock-off N95 masks that do not offer protection from the virus, VICE reported.

As of early Wednesday, four corrections officers, one chaplain and at least 12 COVID-positive prisoners had died, according to the state, with more than 900 prisoners and 350 staff testing positive. More than 37,000 men and women in 40 prisons are in lockdown to restrict movement. The agency has also ordered officers and prisoners to wear cloth masks, which are not considered personal protective equipment because they don’t fully protect the wearer, but do shield others from the wearer and thus help slow the spread of disease.

The viral outbreak that made its way into prisons in 2017 came as a particularly bad mumps season struck Texas. After spreading west from Arkansas, the disease cropped up at three South Texas prisons north of Corpus Christi and near McAllen: Lopez State Jail, Garza West Unit and the 2,900-person McConnell Unit.

That June, representatives from a different worker union—a branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—showed up at a meeting of the system’s health care providers and told the more than two dozen doctors and prison officials in attendance about their concerns, detailing how staffers frequently reported a lack of protective gear and that sometimes they had to buy their own.

After outbreaks emerged again later that year and into the next, union reps aired their concerns to the Texas House Corrections Committee.

“In many units across the state there are shortages of basic sanitary products, such as soap,” union representative Lance Mondragon told lawmakers in August 2018. “In some instances employees have been told they must go without PPE such as gloves, due to shortages.”

In response, legislators recommended that the prison system should make sure every facility had the “appropriate quality, quantity and sizes of PPE for staff” as well as adequate procedures to distribute it. Lawmakers also suggested that the state agency should take better measures to educate workers.

“During testimony, we found out that some infectious disease responses that correctional officers request, such as gloves, are not effective,” they wrote in the first of six recommendations. “If this is the case supported by science, [the Texas Department of Criminal Justice] must ensure that our correctional workforce is informed of all appropriate responses to expected infectious diseases.”

Desel, the prison spokesman, said as the COVID-19 pandemic spread the agency created posters and training videos regarding the proper use of protective gear. Some of the guards, however, raised questions about the effectiveness of such training. Some officers said they hadn’t actually watched the videos or couldn’t remember what they said, and one wrote in a text message to The Marshall Project that the “training sux” and that “many officers are clueless about cross-contamination issues” involving the use of personal protective equipment.

Prison officials have said they’re providing gloves and N95 masks for any staff who interact directly with sick or quarantined prisoners. Staffers said that is true now in some units, but that has not always been the case. According to two officers, guards stationed at a local hospital to accompany prisoners hadn’t been consistently getting or wearing respirator masks. A third officer said staff working quarantine units didn’t receive masks for a number of days after prisoners were isolated for possible infections. All three officers asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from prison administrators.

A fourth officer, who also asked not to be named for the same reason, said the staff at a medical unit had not been given gloves as of mid-March, and only received cloth masks even though multiple prisoners appeared sick, including two that were in isolation. The facility ran out of disposable thermometer covers and had instead begun using ziplock-style plastic bags when screening incoming staff each shift, the officer said.

“Even though they’re saying there is, there’s not enough PPE out there,” said Jeff Ormsby, the Texas corrections leader of the American Federation union. “They're giving staff cloth masks. It’s embarrassing, is what it is.”

Some experts say not everyone needs high-quality protective gear in a prison. Dr. Marc Stern, a former assistant secretary of health care at the Washington State Department of Corrections, said it is not necessary for officers to wear respirator masks unless they’re interacting directly with sick or medically isolated prisoners, pointing to the CDC guidelines. But how much exposure officers elsewhere in a prison could face depends on how much they move around the unit, and how well segregated sick people are. "It would be more prudent where possible for officers who are going to have close and sustained contact [with sick patients] to have N95’s instead of surgical masks,” Stern said. “It’s not an easy question."

Mandating N95 masks too broadly could be less effective at reducing the spread than cloth masks, he added; the tighter-fitting respirators are uncomfortable to wear and more difficult to breathe in, so officers might be more likely to take them off.

One officer assigned to a medical unit said last week that the staff on floors designated for COVID-19 patients typically had respirators, but still frequently visited other floors and other areas of the prison.

“The only people that get the N95 are the lieutenants, sergeants, warden and the officers on the floor where the sick people are,” she said. “They’re telling us they’re going to fit us with them—but they’re not. They’re just hoarding them. All we get is a little blue mask.”

Instead of waiting, she said she bought an N95 mask on her own.

Keri Blakinger Twitter Email is a former staff writer whose work focuses on prisons and jails. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times. She is the organization's first formerly incarcerated reporter. Her memoir, "Corrections in Ink", came out in June 2022.