Original submission by author

My name is Richard Shafer, currently incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), and confined at the McConnell Unit located in Beeville, Texas. I have been incarcerated for the last 11 years: Gurney, Palestine; Byrd, Huntsville; Roach; Coffield, Tennessee Colony; McConnell.

At each of these units, especially Coffield and McConnell, the conditions of confinement are well below what a layman would consider acceptable, with infestations of many disease-carrying insects, venomous spiders, rodents, etc. There is also a problem with excessive amounts of lead, arsenic, and other harmful bacteria in the water supply. I contracted H. pylori while at the Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony, Texas. With this, my age, and medications that I take, I am more susceptible to contract viruses like COVID-19. 

I came to the McConnell Unit in September 2019, before the outbreak of COVID-19. When we first heard about the outbreak, TDCJ and administration at the McConnell Unit did nothing. It wasn’t until the middle of May that the administration actually did anything because five nurses, one provider, and four officers contracted the virus. As a result, all visitations were cancelled, including visitation behind the glass. Meanwhile, our families were reporting rapid outbreaks all over, especially in New York. Inmates were being allowed to make collect calls to families to compensate for not having visitation. But no sanitizing was being done anywhere on the unit and especially inmate housing areas.

The unit was placed on a semi-lockdown, but sanitation got worse, when we were forced to be fed from multi-purpose rooms in our building. Janitors would serve the food from insect-infested rooms, and once the food trays were used, those people, without supervision, would only wipe the trays off with water and a rag. Sanitation is always a serious problem on every unit in Texas.

It wasn’t until the end of May that the administration handed out face masks that were made by offenders and made of cotton, and it has been determined by many doctors and nurses that all face masks are not effective because the virus can enter into the body through the tear ducts and in high humidity, the virus can thrive a lot longer than 72 hours in the moist air that plagues parts of South Texas.

Finally, TDCJ, in an effort to reopen and remove the lockdowns at the prisons, gave mandatory COVID-19 testing. Two days later, our unit went on full lockdown. We are getting poor and inadequate food, which will weaken our immune systems, and some of us already have weakened immune systems. Several inmates had tested positive for COVID-19. However, TDCJ protocols are inadequate and way too late to effect prevention. In fact, their efforts are causing further spread.

Our unit, just 11 days after being locked down, is now coming back up, without verification that those who have contracted COVID-19 are free from the virus and no new testing of staff and inmates to see if the unit is free of the threat. All the while, officers are serving sack meals without any gloves or face masks, using dirty pitchers to pour drinks into the cups of inmates, and during this whole time, medical needs have been denied unless they were life-threatening emergencies.

Now we are hearing on the news and on the radio that COVID-19 cases are increasing across Texas and Arizona. The word needs to get out about this. Despite our mistakes in life, we are people also, not animals. But that is how we are treated. I pray that this little declaration of what is happening in TDCJ and the McConnell Unit in Texas will shed some light on our situation behind bars.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Richard Shafer

Richard Shafer is a writer incarcerated in Texas.