As It Happens

Hundreds have died from COVID-19 in Texas jails and prisons — some while awaiting trial

A new study out of Texas demonstrates the "devastating toll" the COVID-19 pandemic is having on people who are incarcerated or employed at jails and prisons, says the lead author. 

Author of new report on prison death rates calls on state to release inmates who pose no risk to safety

Part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's William G. McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

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A new study out of Texas shows the "devastating toll" the COVID-19 pandemic is having on people who are incarcerated or employed at jails and prisons, says the lead author. 

People in Texas are 490 per cent more likely to contract COVID-19 if they're behind bars, and 140 per cent more likely to die from it, according to the report from the University of Texas at Austin.

At least 231 people have died from COVID-19 in Texas correctional facilities, the report found. That number includes correctional staff, inmates convicted of crimes, and people still waiting for trial. In one prison, six per cent of the population has died.

"The numbers are shocking on their face, but none of this was really a surprise," lead author Michele Deitch, a professor of public affairs who specializes in correctional oversight, told As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal.

"At the start of the pandemic, experts had been warning that prisons and jails were going to become Petri dishes for the spread of the coronavirus. And our numbers bear that out."

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice says it has enacted "robust measures" to fight the spread of COVID-19 in its facilities, including widespread testing, but that such efforts are a challenge in a state with the highest prison population in the country.

Inmates feel 'like sitting ducks' 

Deitch says she has spoken to many inmates during the course of her research, as well as family members of those who have died.

"We were familiar with some of the conditions that they've been experiencing. I think that it's a time of real fear for people inside. They can't control their own environments, and many of them feel like sitting ducks," she said. 

"When you know that people on your cellblock or in your dormitory are ill, you think it's just a matter of time before you're going to become ill as well."

She cited crowded conditions and a lack of access to high-quality medical masks, proper hygiene products or hand sanitizer as contributing factors.

"You've got dorms that are tightly packed. People are together all the time in day rooms or in lines to take showers or get pills from the pill line or to go to the chow hall to get food. You can't get away from other people, and that puts them at tremendous risk," she said. 

"They really are feeling like they are being, you know, abandoned in their ability to protect themselves."

Inmates from El Paso County detention facility work loading bodies wrapped in plastic into a refrigerated temporary morgue trailer in a parking lot of the El Paso County Medical Examiner's office on Nov. 16. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

It's a grisly picture that's become all too common in correctional facilities in the U.S., Canada and around the world during the pandemic. 

Between March and April, the federal government and several provinces worked to reduce the number of people behind bars in Canada through early release and extended parole, but outbreaks are popping up again in facilities across the country. 

In the U.S., several states, including California and New Jersey, have released inmates at unprecedented levels in the face of the disease. It's something Deitch would like to see Texas do as well.

"I think that our research has really raised a lot of questions, and for that matter, the virus has revealed a lot of issues that have long been a source of concern for observers. And one is: are we locking up too many people?" she said.

"Nobody is talking about releasing anyone who would be a risk to public safety. I think it's so important to make that clear. There are a lot of people who are locked up who do not present a current risk."

She noted, for example, that many of those who have died in Texas facilities have been elderly patients. The Duncan Unit, a prison that houses geriatric inmates, lost six per cent of its population to the disease.

What's more, more than half of all those who died from COVID-19 were eligible for parole, and the vast majority of those who died in county jails had not yet been convicted of any crime. 

Texas touts its 'aggressive' testing policy 

The study found that COVID-19 rates are particularly high in Texas facilities, noting that inmates in the state have tested positive at a rate 40 per cent higher than the national prison population.

But Jeremy Desel, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), told As It Happens that statistic — and the study as a whole — fails to adequately take into account the state's "first in the nation, sustained, and aggressive mass asymptomatic testing campaign."

A Bureau of Federal Prisons truck drives past barbed wire fences at the Federal Medical Center prison in Fort Worth, Texas. (L.M. Otero/The Associated Press)

The TDCJ has tested 65,000 employees and 219,000 inmates so far, he said, and facilities with high populations of elderly prisoners are tested weekly "to ensure the best possible medical decisions and placement of inmates can be made."

The department, he said, has partnered with two health-care facilities to "provide a high level of care to those struggling with this illness."

Asked about the possibility of releasing more inmates during the pandemic, Desel said those decisions fall under the purview of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Deitch said the testing levels in Texas are "a very positive step and something that the agency should be commended for," but that the high testing "cannot explain the high number of deaths, which is really the focus of the report." 

The death rate among Texas inmates is 35 per cent higher than the rest of the U.S. prison population, the report found. 

She says more needs to be done to protect inmates, correctional staff and people who live in communities with prisons and jails — both inside Texas and without. 

"I think that this is going to be a national phenomenon because there is no bright line between our prisons and jails and the rest of our communities," she said.

As of Monday afternoon, more than 11.2 million people in the U.S. have been infected with COVID-19, and at least 246,400 have died, according to a New York Times database.

Over the past week, there has been an average of 150,265 cases per day, an increase of 81 per cent from the average two weeks earlier, the Times reports.

"If the virus is spreading that rapidly and surging in our communities, we can expect to see that follow in our prisons and jails," Deitch said. "The numbers are going to be catastrophic if we don't take steps."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Michele Deitch produced by Chris Harbord. 

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