Texas prisons have an unenviable reputation for their harsh conditions. They became more deadly over the last few months as the coronavirus swept through the inmate population. More than 80 inmates have died in state prisons, many of them while serving short sentences for minor offenses.
As Texas criminal defense attorneys, we do everything in our power to keep our clients out of prisons. Alternatives to incarceration are now more important than ever.
The scale of the tragedy in the state’s prisons is laid bare in figures published in the Texas Tribune. At least 84 Texas state prisoners have died from COVID-19, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice reports. A further 10 members of staff have died. It’s the second-highest inmate death toll among all state prison systems. The coronavirus has been indiscriminate. Its victims in prisons include those serving life sentences and those locked up for short terms for relatively minor crimes. Many states moved less serious offenders out of their prisons to protect them from the pandemic. Texas’ practices remained unchanged.
The Tribune highlighted the case of James Allen Smith. The inmate was only supposed to be at a Texas prison for six months. Smith, a 73-year-old retired teacher from Bastrop, was sentenced to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program after he pled guilty to a repeat DWI offense in January.
While he was in Huntsville Prison in May when Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials halted inmate movements and employees fell ill with coronavirus.
Smith caught COVID-19. He was due to return home to his family after completing a short program. He died in prison on June 11.
The high COVID-19 death toll in Texas prisons has spurred campaigners to call for reforms. Notwithstanding a reduction in the Lone Star State’s prison population over the last two decades, it has one of the largest prison populations in the nation.
Organizations like the Texas Civil Rights Project argue a smaller prison population would make social distancing easier behind bars. It would also better protect employees who often spread the virus to their families.
The project points out many states have released more parole-eligible prisoners or those nearing the end of their sentences.
TDCJ figures reveal about 9,500 out of 131,000 people in Texas state prisons have tested positive for coronavirus. The death rate remains alarmingly high. Additionally, over 1,700 TDCJ employees tested positive.
The Tribune reported Texas Governor Greg Abbott resisted the idea of early prison release as a measure to contain the coronavirus. In March, he tweeted the release of “dangerous criminals on the streets” is not a solution.
Two older inmates have sued the TDCJ over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The lawsuit filed in March argued the Department of Criminal Justice is failing to protect inmates at the Pack Unit, a geriatric prison near College Station, from the potentially deadly virus. The complaint stated:
“Despite the ticking time bomb that COVID-19 represents, TDCJ has failed to implement necessary or even adequate policies and practices at the Pack Unit … In practice, the situation is even worse, as TDCJ has failed to implement many of its own policies.”
Texas’ prisons are dangerous places. In past years, high temperatures, as well as violence, claimed lives. If you are facing possible time in a jail or a prison, please talk to our Dallas criminal defense attorneys about alternative strategies. Dallas Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Clint Broden and Mick Mickelsen have decades of combined experience in Texas criminal defense, and an impressive track record of securing acquittals for clients where possible. Please contact us today.