COVID-19 Within Prisons: A Closer Look at Texas
As news of COVID-19 has surrounded our daily lives for the past year, one aspect that has been grossly overlooked is the issue of the pandemic and how, or if, it is being handled within our country’s correctional facilities. Incarcerated individuals are often neglected as it is, so it not surprising that they are being heavily affected by COVID-19 with little to no awareness being raised about the conditions they’re facing. Based on available national data, one in every five state and federal prisoner in the U.S. has tested positive for COVID-19 since the first case was reported. In addition, the Equal Justice Initiative has discovered that inmates have contracted COVID-19 at a rate 5 times higher than the nation’s overall rate. This has in turn resulted in a higher death rate among inmates compared to the national rate; there have been 39 deaths per 100,000 individuals for incarcerated individuals compared to 29 deaths per 100,000 individuals for individuals outside of correctional facilities.
Some members of the public or even policy makers may pose the question of why we should be putting our efforts and resources into vaccinating prisoners when we could be prioritizing other groups of people within society. The Estelle v. Gamble court case from 1976 determined that prisoners have a constitutional right to health care through the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of “cruel and unusual” punishment. Therefore, it would be unconstitutional to deprive incarcerated individuals of proper healthcare and a sound plan to protect them from a large scale pandemic such as COVID-19. But above all else, incarcerated individuals should be prioritized because they are human beings and their lives matter just as much as other people in America.
One state that has handled the COVID-19 virus especially poorly since it’s emergence in the U.S. has been Texas. Some of the largest outbreaks in the country have occurred in correctional facilities such as the ones across Texas. By September of 2020, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported more than 21,000 positive cases and 145 deaths across jails and prisons in their state and by October of 2020, at least 231 people have died from COVID in Texas correctional facilities including incarcerated individuals and staff. However, Texas has stopped reporting data concerning COIVD-19 within their correctional facilities so there is no new data beyond October. It would not be surprising if those totals are much higher in 2021 as COVID-19 has persisted well into the new year. The Prison Policy Initiative reported that as of January of 20201, Texas was one of few states in the U.S. with no plan for vaccinating incarcerated people.
As seen in this figure above, there has been very little effort made to provide adequate protections for incarcerated individuals within Texas jails and prisons. Even when accounting for the population difference of Texas compared to other states, they have consistently ranked high in terms of positive cases within correctional facilities during the course of this pandemic. The political climate of Texas has played a huge role in the way that COVID-19 has unfolded within their correctional facilities. As stated in the Texas LBJ School graphic, incarcerated individuals in Texas are dying at a rate that is 140% higher than the rest of the state as a whole thus demonstrating the extreme level of negligence they are being met with. The Texas Observer had this to say about Texas’s governor Greg Abbott and his handling of the pandemic within correctional facilities: “While prison officials insist they're doing their best, Governor Greg Abbott has effectively ignored the pandemic inside the Texas prison system.”
The lack of leadership and the obvious disregard for this population displayed by Governor Abbott has cost so many individuals their lives and there needs to be more awareness raised about these issues that are being put on the back burner as our country continues to fight off COVID-19. On March 25th, 2021, there was some good news as 2,000 vaccines were administered to incarcerated individuals over 65 years of age and dealing with a health condition. However, this is only a small step in the right direction and I hope that we see better coverage of incarcerated individuals in terms of receiving the vaccine in the coming weeks. In addition, I hope to see Texas correctional facilities resume their reporting of COVID-19 data as this lack of transparency is concerning and prevents us from holding the state accountable for their part in contributing to the COVID-19 death toll.