Texas prisons, jails worst COVID-19 hotspots of any in US

Telford prison in New Boston, Texas. Photo credit: Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

By TERRY WALLACE Associated Press

More Texas jail and prison inmates and staff have been infected and killed by COVID-19 than those of any other state’s criminal justice system, according to a university report released Monday.

At least 231 inmates and staff members have died of COVID-19 in Texas prisons and jails, according to the report by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

The study also found that Texas inmates and staff tested positive for the coronavirus virus that causes COVID-19 at a 490% higher rate than the state’s general population. Also, nine Texas inmates approved for parole died in prison before their release.

Federal prison facilities and Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities were excluded from the analysis, the LBJ School said in a statement.

“COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on prisons and jails across the country, and especially in Texas,” said Michele Deitch, the study’s lead author and a criminal justice policy expert at the LBJ School. He added that the data show “the urgency of taking steps to reduce the risks of additional COVID deaths in Texas prisons and jails.”

However, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the state’s prison system, contends the report does not tell the whole story.

“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,” said TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel. “To date, more than 65,000 employee and 219,000 inmate tests have been carried out. This is far more than any other correctional system in the country.”

Even when adjusted for size, Texas still has the second-highest rate of COVID infections and is tied for the third-highest proportion of its prison population that has died from COVID, among the ten largest prison systems.

Texas has had significantly more staff deaths from COVID than any other prison system, the study found, and 80% of people those who of COVID-19 in Texas county jails were pretrial and not convicted of a crime. Other states that started off with a higher number of COVID-19 prison deaths have been dramatically more successful in reducing deaths than Texas, the study found.

Seven out of the 106 prisons in the Texas system account for over half of the COVID-19 deaths in prison in Texas. Almost 6% of the inmate population at the Duncan Unit geriatric prison near Lufkin in East Texas has died of COVID-19, and more than 80% of the COVID-19 Texas prison fatalities were over age 55, the report states.

That was to be expected, the TDCJ said.

“As reflected in Texas’ general population, most of these individuals were elderly and had numerous pre-existing conditions. Unlike many states, a thorough review of each inmate’s death is conducted to include an autopsy or medical review by doctors to determine if the virus was the immediate cause of death,” said spokesman Desel.

Of the inmates who have died of COVID-19 in Texas prisons, 58% of the people of them were eligible for parole at the time of their death. Twenty-one prison inmates died behind bars with less than two years left to serve on their sentences.

Elsewhere, officials in the southernmost Texas county have imposed a midnight curfew, with a 10 p.m. curfew for juveniles age 17 and younger. Cameron County Judge Eddie TreviƱo Jr. in Brownsville also ordered no gatherings of more than 10 persons not part of a single family, that everyone age 10 and over continue to wear face masks in public, that bars and similar establishments limit themselves to 50 percent of their normal capacities.

The order is effective from 12:01 a.m. Tuesday until midnight Dec. 2.

Health officials reported 3,816 new cases of the new coronavirus and 26 new COVID-19 deaths statewide on Monday, bringing the total cases since the pandemic hit Texas in early March to 963,019 and the state’s total COVID-19 death toll to 18,769. Of those confirmed cases, an estimated 126,412 were active Monday and 6,103 were hospitalized, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

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