The Random Death Sentence: COVID in Prisons and Jails
by Sarah Terzo
“COVID and Corrections: A Profile of COVID Deaths in Custody in Texas” is a report released by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas This report documents cases of deaths by COVID in state-run prisons and jails in Texas. It breaks down the demographics of the victims and compares the rate of deaths in custody to those of the general population.
The report gives insights into the crisis of COVID deaths among prisoners. Some of the findings of the report are deeply troubling.
Summary of the Report
The report doesn’t cover federal prisons in Texas, only state and county run facilities. Nevertheless, it documented 204 deaths among jail and prison inmates between early March 2020 and October 4, 2020. The report mentions that this is not a complete number, saying:
These numbers will likely rise as TDCJ [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] and county jails update custodial death reports. Agencies are required to report all deaths in custody within 30 days, but often amend reports much later, after an autopsy is conducted and the official cause of death is determined.
It is also extremely important to emphasize that these numbers are conservative and there is a great risk of undercounting, especially for county jail deaths. People spend much shorter periods in custody in jails compared to prisons. Because of high levels of “churn” in the jail population, it is possible that individuals contracted the virus in jail, were released, and then died on the outside. Also, some jails may have intentionally released people at risk of dying so that the death would not be recorded as a jail death. Moreover, in both prisons and jails, some people died without ever having been tested for COVID, and some died from a pre-existing medical condition worsened by COVID. Those deaths are not counted as COVID deaths.
Together, these factors contribute to the difficulty in providing a complete picture of the loss of life associated with COVID behind bars in Texas. . . these numbers are conservative; the true toll of the pandemic is likely much higher.
So, the report doesn’t give a complete accounting of COVID deaths in custody, even in the facilities that it covered.
The following are some facts pulled from the report:
- Men make up all jail deaths and 97% of prison deaths.
- In one prison, 6% of inmates died. This is one out of every 17 inmates.
- The average age of death is 64 for people in prison and 56 for people in jail. The youngest incarcerated person who died from COVID was 28, and the oldest 85. Both were incarcerated in state prisons. Four people who died were under the age of 44.
The report explains one possible reason why 64 was the average age of death in prisons:
Because of the poorer health of people who are incarcerated, most health experts believe that their physical health more closely resembles that of a person 10 years older in the general population. In other words, people age 55 in prison have similar medical vulnerabilities to their 65-year-old peers who are not incarcerated.
- 80% of the people who died from COVID in jail had not been convicted of a crime – 11 out of the 14 people who died in jail were awaiting trial. They were in pretrial detention.
- 58% of people who died in prison from COVID (excepting those with life sentences) were eligible for parole at the time they died. Most of these people had been parole– eligible for over a year. The average amount of time those who died had been eligible for parole was 6.5 years.
- 21 people had served 90% or more of their sentence at the time of their death; 8% of those who died had less than a year left of their sentence; 7.5% more had between one and two years left to serve. Nearly half had served over 50% of their sentence.
- Only 17% of people who died had a life sentence.
Nine people who died in prison had already been paroled and were awaiting release. The report says:
There is often a lag time between the decision to approve someone for parole release and the actual release date, as there may be a requirement for the person to participate in a program prior to actual release. However, as our forthcoming report will discuss, many of these required programs have been put on hold during the pandemic.
So, some of those who were eligible for parole may have still been in prison because these programs weren’t running.
Prisoners tested positive for COVID at a rate 490% greater than those in the general population of Texas, and 620% greater than the national average. Prisoners died at a rate 140% higher than those in the general population of Texas, and 115% higher than the national average.
Black prisoners died at a rate proportionate to their percentage of the population in Texas prisons. Latinos were slightly overrepresented among deaths. White people were underrepresented. Blacks made up 33% of the prison population and 33% of the deaths. Whites made up 34% of the prison population and 30% of the deaths. Latinos made up 33% of the population and 36% of the deaths.
There were also 27 staff members who died of COVID, including chaplains, a nurse practitioner, and a cannery worker.
Of those who died of COVID in prison, 73% had been convicted of “person” offenses such as assault, rape, or homicide. One in 10 had been convicted of a nonviolent drug offense; 6% had been convicted of offenses against property, such as burglary; 11% fell into the “other” category which includes, according to the report, “technical violations, DWIs, and other miscellaneous offense.”
Thoughts and Suggestions
Every death from COVID in jail or prison is a tragedy. But it is especially heinous that 80% of jail deaths were among people who hadn’t been convicted of a crime.
The answer is not necessarily to release every single person who is awaiting trial. In August, Ibrahim E. Bouaichi, who was accused of rape, abduction, and other offenses but hadn’t been tried, was released due to fears of COVID. He hunted down and murdered Karla Elizabeth Dominguez, the woman who’d accused him of rape. Had he not been released from jail, Dominguez would still be alive.
Persons who are a threat to others shouldn’t be released. But those who are awaiting trial for nonviolent offenses absolutely should be.
In prisons, the 27% of prisoners who died of COVID after being convicted of nonviolent offenses were essentially given the death penalty for nonviolent crimes. I cannot see any value in keeping nonviolent offenders locked up and at risk during a deadly epidemic.
Parole should be also be expedited for those who are eligible, especially for the elderly, disabled, and those at high risk. The elderly and disabled are at the greatest risk for COVID and are also among the least likely to commit violence upon release. They should be released for their own protection. Releasing elderly people with life sentences, who are no longer any kind of threat to the public, should also be considered, as should making eligible for parole those with life sentences who chaplains and prison officials believe won’t reoffend.
The decision to cancel the program that prisoners were required to undergo before being released, thereby forcing paroled prisoners to stay in custody, was a deeply unfortunate decision that led to people dying. Unless a program is vital for helping prisoners adjust to release, it should be eliminated. All barriers to releasing prisoners who are paroled need to be removed, not added to, during a pandemic.
The fact that incarcerated people are more likely to die of COVID than those who get sick in the general population indicates that medical care in prison is inadequate. One formerly incarcerated person, Paul Singh, has written about the shocking lack of healthcare in prisons. His book should be read by everyone. It’s easy to imagine how poor medical care could add to the death toll among prisoners. An improvement in medical care would help those who have comorbidities be less at risk of dying from COVID. Prompt transfer to hospitals might also lower the death rate.
With less crowded prisons, which would be the result of releasing nonviolent and elderly inmates, it would be easier to prevent infections.
I hope this report will show those with the power to change prison conditions that change is needed. Serious consideration needs to take place to determine what can be done to prevent deaths from COVID among those who are incarcerated and those who work in prisons and jails.
For more of our posts on the impact of Covid-19, see:
Post-pandemic: What Worries Me / Lois Kerschenr
A Healing Metaphor: Pandemic as War / Julia Smucker
Mask Up: It’s Pro-Life / Sophie Trist & Alex Christian Lucas