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80 percent of those who died of Covid-19 in Texas county jails were never convicted of a crime

The “devastating human toll” of Covid-19 in Texas’s correctional facilities is revealed in a new report by University of Texas at Austin researchers.

A sheriff’s deputy waits to screen people entering the county jail as a man walks by on Friday, May 1, 2020, in El Paso, Texas.
Cedar Attanasio/AP

Over 230 people have died from Covid-19 in Texas’s correctional facilities — and in county jails, nearly 80 percent of them were in pretrial detention and hadn’t even been convicted of a crime, according to a new report.

A team of researchers at the University of Austin at Texas reviewed data from the the Texas Justice Initiative which collects information from multiple sources including the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). They found that at least 231 people have died of Covid-19 in the state’s correctional facilities between March and October. This report only looked at state-operated prisons and county-operated jails, as researchers were focused on how Texas’s Covid-19 prison policies had fared.

The 231 figure is likely to be a conservative count. As the researchers note, TDCJ and county jails update death reports after autopsies are conducted, sometimes months after the fact. Additionally, many people have “died without ever having been tested for COVID,” and others died due to a preexisting conditioned worsened by the virus and are not counted in this figure.

The death of an inmate is tragic regardless of their conviction status, but the UT Austin report reveals the state’s lack of urgency in keeping as many people safe as possible. Of the inmates in prison who died, nine of them had been approved for parole and were awaiting release, 21 of them had served 90 percent or more of their sentence, and 58 percent of those who died in prisons were eligible for parole.

Texas isn’t alone: Despite the alarms sounded by policy experts, correctional officers, and prisoners themselves earlier this year, Covid-19 has been allowed to ravage prison populations, harming inmates, correctional officers, and the surrounding communities for months. Civil rights groups and criminal justice experts advocated reducing the prison population as much as possible to flatten the curve. Unfortunately, few states took serious action to combat the virus in prisons and jails — according to a June ACLU report, no state earned more than a D-, and most earned F’s.

As the pandemic was spreading through the US in the spring, prisons quickly became one of the epicenters of the crisis, as my colleague German Lopez reported in April:

In Rikers Island in New York City, the jail’s top doctor called the coronavirus outbreak there — one of the largest in the country, with hundreds sick — a “public health disaster unfolding before our eyes.” As of April 20, the confirmed infection rate in New York City jails was more than 9 percent, compared to less than 2 percent in New York City more broadly, according to the Legal Aid Society.

In Michigan’s Parnall Correctional Facility, 10 percent of prisoners and 21 percent of staff tested positive for the coronavirus as of April 15, according to the Detroit Free Press. When controlling for population, that makes the outbreak there even worse than Cook County’s or Rikers Island’s.

In Ohio, more than one in five of the state’s confirmed cases are in the prison system, the Columbus Dispatch reported. The Marion Correctional Institution, where 73 percent of inmates tested positive for the virus, makes up a majority of those cases.

Correctional facilities provide the perfect storm for an outbreak, as Catherine Kim reported for Vox in early April. Jails and prisons are overcrowded, inmates “share everything from cells to showers to dining spaces,” and inmates have “few resources for proper hygiene.” Without room to social distance, proper hygiene becomes even more important. As Kim reported, “most correctional facilities do not provide soap,” and hand sanitizer has been banned in most prisons “because it can be used to brew toxic alcoholic drinks.”

It’s a horrible situation for inmates, staff, and the local communities, which are also left vulnerable to infection as workers commute between work and home. The researchers place blame firmly on the state’s leadership, concluding that “Texas’ failure to curb the spread of the virus in its corrections facilities” has resulted in a “devastating impact on the people who live and work in our state’s prisons and jails.”

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