Covid Cases in One State Prison System Are ‘Off the Charts’

The Federal Medical Center prison in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Federal Medical Center prison in Fort Worth, Texas. AP Photo/LM Otero


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A new report from the University of Texas at Austin says that the state’s correctional system has not taken the adequate steps to reduce Covid cases and deaths among incarcerated people and staff.

More people in Texas prisons have contracted and died from the coronavirus than in any other prison system in the country, a new report found. 

Between April and October, more than 23,000 incarcerated people tested positive and just shy of 5,000 staff have, according to the report from the University of Texas at Austin. That means people in Texas prisons are testing positive at a rate 40% higher than the national prison population average.

To date, 190 people in prison have died, along with 27 correctional staff members and 14 people in jail. Eighty percent of those who died in jail were being held pre-trial and hadn’t been convicted. Of those who died in prison, 59% were eligible for parole and 9 people had been approved for parole but were not yet released. 

Case and death rates are “off the charts,” said Michele Deitch, director of the Covid, Corrections, and Oversight Project at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Deitch said the data that raised the most red flags for her is the comparative analysis of prison deaths between Texas and other states over time. In the beginning of the pandemic, Texas, Michigan, Ohio, and New Jersey each reported around 30 to 40 deaths per month—but the other three states reduced their prison deaths to fewer than ten by July. Texas, by contrast, reported more than 30 deaths per month from April to August. 

“What that tells me is that every state was caught off guard by the pandemic and struggled at first,” Deitch said. “But other states figured out a way to manage the problem.”

Jeremy Desel, the communications director for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said that “from the beginning of the pandemic, the TDCJ has taken numerous steps to prevent and mitigate the spread of Covid-19 within correctional facilities.” 

The report fails to mention the “sustained, and aggressive mass asymptomatic testing campaign” that has tested more than 65,000 employees and 219,000 incarcerated people, Desel said. “The intention of our wide-scale testing is to identify positive asymptomatic individuals and take appropriate action,” he said. “Most inmates have little to no symptoms and recover, but tragically some have succumbed to Covid-19…most of these individuals were elderly and had numerous pre-existing conditions.”

Across the country, prisons and jails have been hot spots for virus outbreaks, with some incarcerated people describing their jail stays as a “death sentence.” More than 252,000 people in prisons and jails have been infected and at least 1,450 people, including correctional staff, died, according to data from the New York Times.

Doug Smith, the senior policy analyst at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, an advocacy group for criminal justice reform, said the state hasn’t done enough to mitigate spread in prisons. Smith noted that incarcerated people had to sue for basic items like masks and hand sanitizer and that the corrections system “failed to heed calls to reduce the prison population, especially those who are elderly or medically vulnerable.” 

“The result is exactly what experts warned would happen: preventable death,” he said.

Deitch acknowledged that the state’s testing regime was helpful, but said it is only “a piece of the puzzle.” As the TDCJ pointed out, most of the prison deaths are occurring in facilities with large populations of medically vulnerable people. In the Rufus H. Duncan Geriatric Facility, for example, 6% of the population has died from Covid. 

“We knew this was a disease that would impact medically vulnerable and elderly populations. The response should take extra steps to protect them and that isn’t happening,” Deitch said. “Testing doesn’t give you social distancing, it doesn’t release medically vulnerable people, it doesn’t supply masks or hygiene supplies.”

The report notes that “since Texas has the country’s largest prison system, it is perhaps not surprising that it has the most Covid deaths.” But even when comparing death rates, Texas still fares poorly. People in Texas prisons are dying from coronavirus at a rate 35% higher than the national prison population average. Michigan and Ohio, however, still have higher death rates.

Researchers noted that the Covid numbers are likely an undercount. Deitch explained that people could have died who were never tested for coronavirus, and autopsy reports that found evidence of Covid could be delayed, meaning deaths were attributed to “other conditions that were exacerbated by Covid.” The jail numbers, she said, are the most likely to show an undercount because of jail churn, meaning some people could have been exposed when they were detained and then died after being released.  

Still, she acknowledged that some jails did a good job mitigating the risk of virus spread. Travis County Jail in Austin, for example, has not reported any Covid deaths. That facility established a system early in the pandemic to quarantine arrestees instead of releasing them into the general population upon arrival. 

Harris County Jail in Houston, by contrast, reported 6 deaths, the highest of any jail in the state. That county was the site of a protracted legal battle over whether local judges could release people accused of violent crimes on no cost “personal bonds” if they couldn’t pay bail, part of an effort in spring to reduce the number of people in the jail and therefore allow greater space for social distancing.

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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