Those were the thoughts that floated through my consciousness when I learned that the Coffield Unit had its first confirmed active case of the coronavirus. I had been following the continual coverage of this pandemic since it was first reported in China, and now it was in my neighborhood. Or more accurately, it was now in the correctional facility where I was finishing a ten year sentence. And I only had 145 days to go.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) operates a vast prison complex with over 100 units. The Coffield Unit is the largest in the system with an average of 4,500 inmates on a daily basis. Moreover, the Coffield Unit shares 27,000 acres of farmland with the Michael, Beto, Powledge, and Gurney Units in the Tennessee Colony/Palestine Texas area. Although TDCJ owns the property, convicted labor manages and maintains the property for the state. Inmates receive absolutely no compensation for their labor. Slavery is alive and well in the South thanks to the 13th amendment of the U.S. constitution. But I digress.
The Coffield Unit had gotten away relatively unscathed since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Despite having the largest population in the TDCJ, Coffield held steady with low numbers for the first four months of reporting. But then the TDCJ central administrative office ordered their “strike team” to test the entire unit. When the numbers came back we began to see what was really happening on the Coffield Unit.
There were over 750 active confirmed cases of the COVID-19, by far the most reported in the TDCJ. A public health crisis was (and is) occurring. Furthermore, many of the individuals that tested positive for COVID were asymptomatic and had been spreading the virus unknowingly. The Coffield Unit administration sprang into action, or at least tried. They instituted a “precautionary lockdown” for the entire unit which consists of 24 hours of confinement in a cell, seven days a week, for a minimum of 14 days. And if anyone tests positive in those 14 days, that automatically triggers a reset of the 14 day period. As of today we have been on precautionary lockdown for seven weeks with no end in sight.
Yet the virus continues to run amok. No matter what policies or procedures the TDCJ attempts to implement in response to COVID-19, nothing seems to be effective in stopping the spread of this deadly virus. New active cases are reported on a daily basis despite the “precautionary lockdown.”
TDCJ’s prisons are old and require inmate movement to get us our basic necessities like showers and medical care. It is almost impossible to completely social distance at this facility. When inmates are in transit, current TDCJ policy requires them to be staged in the dayroom, and this is a recipe for disaster in the COVID-19 world. The dayroom has a seating capacity for 40 inmates, however, there are 88 inmates assigned to the wing and inmates are routinely in the dayroom for showers. Inmates are packed shoulder-to-shoulder with no social distancing possible. It makes no sense to keep inmates isolated in their cells for 23 hours only to expose those same inmates to others in the dayroom to shower. We now all have to make a choice between showering and exposing ourselves to COVID-19.
And if COVID-19 were not enough, Texas prisoners must also endure the deadly heat. It’s summertime in Texas and that means triple-digit heat all the time. Spending 24 hours a day one’s cell puts an inmate at a very high risk of succumbing to a heat-related death or heat-related illnesses. TDCJ inmates die every year because of the heat in Texas’ poorly ventilated prisons. Despite the litigation that the TDCJ has faced, it still refuses to acknowledge that the heat in Texas’ prisons is a problem. It has spent millions of taxpayer dollars to fend off lawsuits rather than provide A/C to its prisoners. A lot of that insanity stems from the political climate of Texas politics. Texas leaders do not want to be seen as running luxurious prisons. However, installing A/C so prisoners do not die is not a matter of luxury, but a matter of life and death.
To say that I am concerned about my health is an understatement. I feel trapped and helpless in this prison. No matter what I do to protect myself. I am at the mercy of others and can only hope they wear their masks and socially distance. Some inmates follow the rules. Some do not. Some don’t care because they are never going home. But I am.
In a few short months my debt to society will be paid-in-full. Ten consecutive years in a ten year sentence. I’ve spent my time in prison wisely earning multiple college degrees all while addressing the issues that led to my incarceration. In January of this year I had begun to make plans with friends and family for my homecoming. I had a job lined up and things were looking good. Now everything has changed. I go to bed at night and check my own temperature by placing my hand on my forehead. I listen at night to hear if anyone has a dry cough. I stay in my cell as much as possible to limit my exposure to COVID-19, and still that seems woefully inadequate because people all around me continue to get sick. It is a very stressful situation.
As Americans continue to deal with the aftermath of the George Floyd tragedy and demand criminal justice reform from their elected officials, I ask that the millions of people already incarcerated in American jails and prisons not to be forgotten. In addition to the abysmal conditions of confinement that we experience on a daily basis, there is a pandemic wreaking havoc inhere with no end in sight. I may not have an officer with his or her knee literally on my neck, but I can’t breathe either. The system has its knee on my neck and I feel powerless to stand up and demand that prison officials and politicians take my life and health seriously. The inmate grievance procedure is a joke and the courts have become outright hostile toward inmate litigation. So please stand with me and demand that humane policies be adapted to deal with the COVID-19 in America’s jails and prisons.
I hope not to die in the next 145 days. Unfortunately, the possibility of death remains real. In the event of my demise, I ask that my story be told as an example of everything we have gotten wrong with mass incarceration policies. And that my death not be in vain, but serve as a rally cry for those seeking to repair a broken system that routinely discounts the lives of black and brown people. If I happen to make it to December, I look forward to joining the fray or voices as we remake and rebuild the criminal justice system that has too often failed us and our communities.
Benny Hernandez has completed his 10 year sentence in Texas for Robbery and is awaiting his imminent release.
Benny Hernandez #1752271
2661 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75884