For months, advocates for those living inside prisons and jails have claimed that saving lives requires state leaders to take drastic action, and fast. And for many months, those calls have not been heard. A new report put out by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin details the impact of Texas's failure in particular to address the coronavirus crisis inside its state prisons and county jails.
As the country rounds the 10-month mark of the onset of coronavirus, it's become extraordinarily clear that the public health crisis exploits those with least access to resources or means to follow the guidance set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while most states were slow to implement public health practices, including Texas, the UT report outlines the deadly consequences of delaying safety protocol in prisons specifically. According to the report, "More people in Texas prisons have contracted COVID than in any other prison system in the United States." The raw numbers of individuals who have passed away as a result of COVID-19 infections are harrowing: From March through Oct. 4, the range of time studied by UT, 231 people died in Texas state jails and prisons alone, including 27 staffers.
Even then, that number likely represents an undercount, as "some [incarcerated] people died without ever having been tested for COVID, and some died from a pre-existing medical condition worsened by COVID," according to the report, which clarified that those deaths are not reported as COVID-19 deaths. Additionally, the deaths are not spread evenly across Texas facilities. At one unit, nearly 6% of the total incarcerated population passed away due to coronavirus, which is about 1 in 18 people over the course of five months. Across county jails, about 80% of those who died were not yet convicted of a crime and were being held under "pre-trial detention."
The deadly outcome is not a surprise to advocates. As The Texas Tribune reported in June, prison officials neglected to provide personal protective equipment to incarcerated people, shuffled them around without regard for who was showing symptoms, and "disinfected" cells by spraying bleach sometimes directly on those incarcerated. Dustin Hawkins, a 32-year-old incarcerated in Harris County, told the Tribune in a letter, "It is a constant shuffle of offenders. Offenders are moved on the cellblock sick and untested, then tested, confirmed positive and moved to another cellblock after exposing several others to the virus." Another incarcerated person put it more plainly in a letter to the Tribune: "In here it seems they are trying to get us sick."
That perspective is shared by researchers at the Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank at New York University. "By failing to act, [Texas Gov. Greg] Abbott has essentially sentenced those in and around Texas prisons to death," the Brennan Center wrote. The American Public Health Association believes that prisons are in and of themselves a public health crisis due to the risks posed by coronavirus.
But prison officials, predictably, disagree. One official from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) rejected the holistic message of the UT report's findings, claiming that the state deserves more credit for its efforts. "While this report attempts to capture the impact of the virus on the prison population, what is noticeably absent is a discussion of the TDCJ’s first-in-the-nation, sustained, and aggressive mass asymptomatic testing campaign,” TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel told the Associated Press. But if 6% of an entire prison is dying, perhaps the time for defensiveness is over.