A new study reveals COVID-19 is running rampant in Texas prisons where outbreaks are 40% higher than the national prison population average, leading to a greater number of deaths.
The report from the University of Texas at Austin is just the latest indictment of the deadly Texas prison system. It has led to calls for changes in the way elderly prisoners are kept in jail as well as inmates who are eligible for parole.
The report COVID and Corrections: A Profile of COVID Deaths in Custody in Texas indicates at least 231 people have died from the coronavirus in prisons and jails in Texas since the outbreak began in the spring.
The report notes lockups have reported over 23,000 confirmed COVID cases. The death rate in Texas’ prisons and jails is 35% higher than the rest of the U.S. prison population.
The Texas Tribune noted Texas has the largest population of inmates in the country. It has consistently led the nation in the unenviable record of having the highest number of COVID deaths behind bars. The Lone Star State’s infection rate in prison per 10,000 people ranks second highest to Florida. Texas has the third-highest coronavirus death rate in the nation.
The stark statistics may not tell the whole story. The Tribune notes they are likely an undercount. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice counts COVID-19 deaths after final autopsies are conducted. The autopsies can take up to six months to complete. Some of the inmates died without being tested for COVID-19. Others had preexisting conditions that were exacerbated by the virus. They may not be listed as COVID casualties.
Critics accused the authorities of failing to release low-risk offenders from jail to protect them from the pandemic in line with many other states. This summer, the Observer reported at least 10,500 people incarcerated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice were approved for release by the Texas parole board but remained locked up as they waited to complete required pre-release programs. More than half of the inmates who died were eligible for parole.
Governor Greg Abbot ignored calls to release people who already made parole, according to media reports. Abbot resisted the idea of early release when the pandemic hit in the spring.
Elderly prisoners are particularly at risk. They have been at the center of legal battles. In October, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas is not required to provide protective measures such as providing sanitizer to inmates who use wheelchairs.
Michele Deitch, the lead researcher at the University of Texas, is critical about elderly inmates languishing in Texas’ dangerous jails.
“We need to start asking questions about why we are locking up people that are that old and that vulnerable,” she said.