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Incarcerated Texans are dying from COVID-19 at a rate 35% higher than rest of the U.S. prison population, UT study finds

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Posted at 1:37 PM, Nov 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-15 14:37:56-05

With more than 23,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Texas’ prisons, incarcerated Texans are testing positive at a rate 40% higher than the national prison population average, according to a new report from the University of Texas at Austin.

And with at least 190 inmate deaths linked to the virus, the state’s death rate is 35% higher than the rest of the U.S. prison population, the report found.

Texas, which has the largest population of people behind bars in the country, has led the nation for most COVID-19 prison and jail deaths of any system in the country. Texas’ infection rate in prison, per 10,000 people, is the second-highest in the nation, behind Florida, and the state is tied at No. 3 for highest death rate linked to the virus.

“There has been a devastating impact from COVID on our state’s prisons and jails, and we can’t just look away,” said Michele Deitch, the lead researcher. “Every one of those numbers is a life that was lost.”

The grim numbers are also almost certainly undercounts. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice counts COVID-19 fatalities after final autopsies, which can take three to six months to complete, compared with a preliminary autopsy that might happen within two weeks.

Some people have also died without being tested for COVID-19, while others died from preexisting conditions worsened by the virus, which aren’t always captured by the official toll.

“These numbers are shocking on their face, but even these numbers do not capture the devastating toll of COVID on our prisons and jails,” Deitch said.

At the start of the pandemic, Texas, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio were reporting the most prison COVID-19 deaths in the nation, at roughly 30 to 40 deaths per month, according to the report. The other three states quickly reduced the number of inmates dying to about five a month. Only Texas was still reporting more than 30 inmates dying per month at the end of the summer.

“Texas has really not made a concerted effort to address this problem,” Deitch said. “It’s clear that our prisons do not have control over this problem.”

Jeremy Desel, a TDCJ spokesperson, said the agency is deploying “robust measures,” including “mass asymptomatic testing” and a “high level of care,” to combat the spread of the virus.

While those steps have allowed the TDCJ to test nearly 220,000 inmates and 65,000 employees, the agency has been unable to stave off cases in some facilities that were initially COVID-19 free.

As late as August, no one had tested positive in the Roach Unit, which houses about 1,300 incarcerated men in the rural Panhandle town of Childress. There are now 629 active cases of the virus there, nearly half of the prison’s population, TDCJ data shows.

The study also noted that several of the incarcerated Texans who died from the virus had already been approved for parole, while more than half were eligible for parole. A large majority of those who died in jails were not yet convicted of a crime.

Both Desel and Deitch noted the overwhelming impact the virus has had on elderly inmates.

People older than 55 years old make up over 80% of COVID-19 prison deaths in the state, the report said.

Elderly inmates fighting for more coronavirus protections have been at the center of some of the state’s legal battles.

In October, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas does not have to provide more protective measures, like giving hand sanitizer to inmates who use wheelchairs, against the coronavirus at a geriatric prison.

TDCJ argued at the time that it had many protective measures in place already and hand sanitizer could be used to drink or start fires. Inmates’ attorneys said the concerns were “disingenuous,” as fires are not a problem at the prison and inmates have plenty of other flammable material, like paper.

Problems have persisted. Just seven of the more than 100 TDCJ facilities make up 56% of all the prison deaths from COVID-19. Those hard-hit facilities tend to house inmates who are older, have physical disabilities or have medical conditions. In one geriatric prison two hours northeast of Houston in Angelina County, 19 people — almost 6% of the entire prison population — have died.

Deitch said that the data shows what she saw as already apparent.

“We need to start asking questions about why we are locking up people that are that old and that vulnerable,” Deitch said.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/11/10/texas-prison-deaths-coronavirus/.

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