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COVID-19: What Texas Must Do to Save Prisoners’ Lives

With other large prison systems releasing far more inmates, the Lone Star State retains the distinction of having nearly 122,000 citizens incarcerated, more than any other prison system in the U.S. except the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

California, with a population 36% larger than that of Texas, has a prison census almost 22% lower than TDCJ’s. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has reduced its prisoner count during the pandemic by 23% to just over 95,450 — the first time the number of incarcerated Californians has dipped below 100,000 in 30 years.

Even BOP holds only slightly more prisoners in its 122 facilities than Texas does in its 104 prisons. During the pandemic, BOP has lowered the federal prisoner population more than 30 percent to just over 123,000.

While about 20 percent of American prisoners are age 50 or over — those the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the BOP, considers elderly, due to the unique conditions and stressors in prisons — TDCJ’s 2019 statistical report noted that 22.7 percent of its prisoners fit this category. Elderly prisoners are at increased risk of death from COVID-19, which spreads rapidly in crowded prison conditions.

As of January 12, 2021, TDCJ reported 31,332 prisoners and 9,639 staff members had tested positive for the coronavirus. The deaths of 230 prisoners and 34 staff members were either confirmed, suspected or under investigation of being caused by COVID-19.

Even more eye-catching is the number of Texas prisoners who are eligible for parole: In May 2020, there were 15,000 parole-approved inmates — about 12 percent of TDCJ’s total prisoner population — with 4,500 of those having waited six months or more for their release from prison to begin serving their parole sentences.

Not only the age but also the educational status of Texas prisoners argues in favor of their release, since studies show reduced recidivism rates for both elderly prisoners and those with higher education. Texas has a large number of prisoners pursuing associate, bachelor and master’s degrees from state-accredited community colleges and universities, which hold classes in prison education departments. Studies show recidivism rates drop for degreed prisoners — falling to 10 percent for those with associate degrees and zero for those with a master’s — far below the state’s 30.5 percent rate and the national average of 65.7 percent.

Texas prisoner release procedures have been simplified and streamlined during the pandemic, with those freed leaving from their assigned units instead of being bused to a designated release prison, such as the Walls Unit in Huntsville.

But Gov. Greg Abbott — who also oversees the state parole board — went on record to say that freeing “dangerous criminals” wasn’t the right response to the pandemic. He has since gone silent on the issue.

In the 2021 state legislative session, prisoner advocates like Jorge Renaud plan to push for changes to parole, such as allowing required programming — like drug rehab — to be completed outside of prison. He says that when it comes to COVID-19, there are just two ways TDCJ can go.

“Either kick everybody out (of prison) who is (eligible to go) on parole,” he says, “or not let anybody go and not take anybody in and hope that little by little the disease would just...burn out.” 


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