If it were revealed that Texas prisons and jails had failed to prevent more than 200 people (and counting) from suffocating during 2020, it would be an international outrage. Yet that’s what appears to be happening, according to a new study from the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs (UT-LBJ-PA).1 Will this disgrace continue or will the State of Texas put a stop to it?
Some of the lowlights of UT-LBJ-PA’s study, released in November 2020, are:
- As of early October 2020, at least 231 people have died in Texas correctional facilities. This includes staff, jail and prison deaths. UT-LBJ-PA Study at 6.
- Prison deaths account for 93% of deaths among people in custody. Id.
- In the Duncan Unit in Diboll (south of Lufkin), almost 6% of the incarcerated population has died. Id.
- The average age of death is 64 for people in prison. It is 56 for people in jail. Id.
- 21 people had served 90% or more of their sentence at the time of their death. Id.
- 11 of the 14 inmates (approximately 80%) who died from COVID in Texas jails were not convicted of a crime. Id.
- 58% of people who died in prisons from COVID were eligible for parole. Id.
- 9 people who died in prisons from COVID were approved for parole but not yet released. Id.
Even accounting for the massive size of Texas’ incarceration population, the Lone Star State appears to be in much worse shape than other American states. Texas prison systems have more COVID infections than any other state, including significantly more than California and the entire federal system. UT-LBJ-PA Study at 9. Texas also has more COVID infections among staff than any other prison system. Id. Not surprisingly, as of early October 2020, Texas has significantly more COVID deaths of incarcerated people (190) than any other prison system. Id. at 10. Florida is second with 134. The federal system is third with 133. Id.
Texas has significantly more staff deaths from COVID than any other prison system. UT-LBJ-PA Study at 10. This not only paints a damning picture of conditions inside the state’s prisons, but shows an apparent tendency to spread infections beyond prison walls and into surrounding communities.
People in Texas prisons are testing positive for COVID at disproportionately high rates. UT-LBJ-PA Study at 11. A whopping 490% higher than the state of Texas as a whole. Id. It is 40% higher than the national prison population average. Id. And, it is 620% higher than the national average of people in the United States. Id.
People in Texas prisons are dying from COVID at disproportionately high rates. UT-LBJ-PA Study at 11. The death rate is 140% higher than the state of Texas as a whole. Id. It is 35% higher than the national prison population average. And it is 115% higher than the national average. Id.
Texas is not the worst in every single category. Of the ten largest prison systems in the U.S., Texas has the second highest rate of COVID infections. UT-LBJ-PA Study at 12. Florida is 1,663 per 10,000 people and Texas is 1,623 – a difference of less than a percent. Id. Even accounting for our size, Texas has one of the highest death rates.2
One final statistic gathered between April – August 2020: Other states (including Ohio and Michigan) that started with a high number of COVID prison deaths have done substantially better than Texas in bringing down their death numbers. UT-LBJ-PA Study at 13. It appears that Texas is not on par with most of its peers in combatting the virus and saving lives.
The statistics are shocking, disturbing, and admittedly a little numbing. Reading through pages and pages of numbers almost causes one to forget that the figures – especially those relating to deaths – represent actual human beings who weren’t sent to jail or prison for execution. They were fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. Their lives meant something to people on the outside. The fact that more of our elected officials are not outraged by what’s happening in our Texas prisons and jails during the pandemic is, itself, an outrage.
I do not claim to have all of the answers for what may be done. But we should at least consider a few possibilities. I call on Governor Greg Abbott (who has the power and certainly the willingness to issue Emergency Orders), the Texas Legislature (which is scheduled to meet January 12, 2021 – or earlier, if the Governor so directs), TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier (who is the top manager responsible for the care and custody of all TDCJ inmates) and county sheriffs (whose job includes the protection of inmates at county jails across the state) to consider doing the following: (1) segregate older and medically vulnerable inmates from the rest of prison and jail populations and administer daily, rapid testing to the protected groups; (2) increase training for prison guards and inmates, in order to avoid contracting and spreading COVID, and institute a “zero tolerance” policy for prison and jail employees who violate safety protocols; (3) speed up the parole process and instruct the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to show more flexibility in allowing release (with appropriate conditions) — especially for non-violent offenders; (4) encourage release of county jail inmates who are eligible for bond. This should include withdrawing Executive Order No. GA-13 relating to detention in county and municipal jails during COVID-19 disaster.
Texas can do this. We can do whatever works in other states and we can supplement with our own approaches. The current situation in Texas prisons and jails is unacceptable and must be addressed immediately. People are dying.
As it stands, Texas detention facilities are losing the war against COVID-19 and losing it badly.