A report from researchers in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs shows that incarcerated people in Texas jails and prisons are dying at a rate 35% higher than the rest of the United States prison population.
Associate director Alycia Welch, senior lecturer Michelle Deitch and a class of graduate students, all from the School of Public Affairs, created a report showing that incarcerated Texans test positive at a 40% higher rate than the average of the national prison population.
The report, supported by a grant from philanthropy corporation Arnold Ventures, compiled publicly available data from custodial death reports filed by prisons and jail agencies.
“What we found out was pretty stunning takeaways: 231 deaths, 190 of them occurring in the prison system, 14 of them in jails around the state and then on top of all of that 27 staff deaths,” Welch said.
People over 55 accounted for over 80% of COVID-19 prison deaths in Texas, according to the report. Additionally, nine of the inmates who died had been approved for parole and were awaiting release, 21 had served 90% or more of their sentence and 58% were eligible for parole, according to the report. Almost 80% of the people who died of COVID-19 while in a Texas county jail had not been convicted of a crime, according to the report.
According to the report, Black people’s share of prison deaths caused by COVID-19 is proportional to their representation in the Texas prison population, Hispanic people are overrepresented in deaths compared to their representation in the Texas prison population and white people are underrepresented.
The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition advocates for prison reform. Senior policy analyst Douglas Smith said the coalition warned the governor about potential COVID-19 deaths among prisoners up for parole.
“What we saw from the report is they didn’t act on that, and quite a number of them died,” Smith said.
Jeremy Desel, director of communications for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said in an email the report does not discuss the fact that the department created a mass asymptomatic testing program that has tested more than any other correctional system in the country — 65,000 employees and 219,000 inmates.
“The intention of our wide-scale testing is to identify positive asymptomatic individuals and take appropriate action,” Desel said. “Most inmates have little to no symptoms and recover, but tragically some have succumbed to COVID-19.”
The researchers are continuing their efforts to look into the reason behind the higher numbers of infection and deaths in the Texan incarcerated population, Welch said.
“It’s very clear that they have been one of the states that took the most aggressive approach to testing when the (COVID-19) pandemic hit, but I think what our data is showing is that it can't stop it at testing,” Welch said. “The deaths are showing us that just testing is not doing enough.”