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Study Analyzes Deaths of Parole-Approved Texas Prisoners Awaiting Release

by Matt Clarke

A national audit of state parole systems conducted in 2019 gave Texas an “F” grade, noting it had some of the most burdensome requirements prisoners must meet before being approved for parole. Now a new study by the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs entitled, Dead Man Waiting, has shown that many of the prisoners who met those requirements die during the lengthy delays they suffer while awaiting release.

According to the report, only about 10% of the prisoners in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ)—over 10,700—have been approved for parole and are awaiting release. Many of those prisoners have been tentatively approved for parole by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) conditioned upon the completion of in-prison rehabilitation programming.

The programming is not available to parole-eligible prisoners until the BPP approves them for parole and sets the requirement for the programming. The programming is administered by TDCJ, which places parole-approved prisoners on a list to enroll in the BPP-required programming whenever space becomes available. As a result, prisoners can remain in prison a year or two after receiving approval for parole while awaiting space to become available in a program or while participating in a program.

The usual delays in starting a program became exacerbated during the pandemic when transfers between prisons were halted. Even a resumption in prisoner transfers did not mean in-person classroom sessions had resumed. Eventually, TDCJ allowed some programs to resume using videoconferencing, telephone, and paper assignment packets. However, there continued to be a lengthy time lag between parole approval and release.

Another report, published in November 2020 co-authored by the authors of this report, showed that nine TDCJ prisoners had died of COVID-19 after having been approved for parole. They were curious whether such deaths were common in TDCJ outside of the pandemic and started a study which led to this report.

The study showed that, during the studied time period prior to the pandemic (January 2019 to January 2020), there was an average delay of between three and four months between parole approval and release. During the studied pandemic time period between March 2020 and March 2021, this delay increased to six months. The authors noted that these were conservative estimates and the actual average delays were likely longer.

During the pre-pandemic period, 26 TDCJ prisoners who had been approved for parole died while awaiting release. During the pandemic period, the number of deaths increased to 42. However, 18 were caused by COVID-19, leaving 24 non-COVID-19-related deaths in the pandemic period.

This showed that a large number of prisoners dying while awaiting release after receiving parole approval was not solely due to the pandemic. However, COVID-19 was responsible for a 70% increase in the number of deaths during the pandemic time period. Other leading causes of death included cancer (nine pre-pandemic, five in pandemic), heart condition (five pre-pandemic, eight during pandemic), Hepatitis C (four pre-pandemic, zero in pandemic), liver disease (two pre-pandemic, zero in pandemic) and sepsis (two pre-pandemic, one in pandemic). There was a single suicide in each time period. No other cause of death accounted for more than one death during the combined time periods.

The demographics were similar in both periods. Only two women died in each period. White people accounted for 38% of pre-pandemic deaths and 41% during the pandemic period. For Black people, it was 38% and 33% while for Hispanics it was 23% and 26%.

During the pandemic period, 68% of the parole-approved prisoners who died had served at least half of their sentence. Five had served their entire sentence, but may have had prior sentences that were longer. Pre-pandemic, 54% had served at least half their sentences and two had served their entire sentences.

Pre-pandemic, the average number of months between parole approval and death was six. During the pandemic it rose to nine. The extra pandemic-related delay made it more probable that a parole-approved prisoner was exposed to COVID-19 or had a chronic condition fatally worsen.

The most recent BPP statistics show the BPP requires 60% of prisoners approved for parole to complete programming before release. The programming lasts between three and 18 months. Texas statutory law allows, but does not mandate, these programs and does not require their timely provision.

The report found a structural fault in the parole process design that was a contributing factor in the deaths by causing lengthy delays between parole approval and release. It recommended that the BPP-approved programming be made available near the start of prisoners’ sentences instead of after they are approved for parole. It noted that this would save Texas $744,722 a day—the cost of incarcerating the over 10,700 parole-approved prisoners at an average cost of $69.27 per TDCJ prisoner per day—for a total of over $271 million a year. The actual savings might be higher since the average parole-approved prisoner is older and has higher medical costs than the average TDCJ prisoner in general.

Front-loading the rehabilitative programming could also make a positive impact on the prisoners’ behavior while incarcerated, reducing misconduct and disciplinary violations and improving conditions for prisoners and staff alike. Two different bills introduced into the Texas House of Representatives in the last legislative session were intended to bring about front-loading of BPP-approved rehabilitation programming. The measures, sponsored by Reps. Jarvis Johnson and Ron Reynolds, received bi-partisan support and passed out of the House, but were never heard in the Senate.

The authors recommended that parole-approved prisoners with programming requirements be allowed to complete the programming in the community while on parole. They also recommended releasing parole-approved prisoners with serious chronic medical conditions rather than making their release conditional on the completion of rehabilitative programming. 



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