Tuesday, September 22, 2020

COVID deadlier in Texas prisons than jails

Grits must give credit where it's due: County jails in Texas have done an impressive job, relatively speaking, of containing the coronavirus in their facilities. As of yesterday, there had been eight confirmed deaths and five more suspected deaths linked to COVID-19.

When I say "relatively," I mainly mean relative to TDCJ, which has struggled mightily with the virus by comparison. Their last update was September 9th, nearly two weeks ago, at which time:

In total there have been 199,571 offenders and 65,835 employees tested for COVID-19. Of those tested, 21,440 offenders and 4,554 staff have tested positive for COVID-19 in both symptomatic and asymptomatic testing. There have been 18,724 offenders and 3,477 employees who have recovered. There have been 151 offender deaths connected to COVID 19 with an additional 39 under investigation. There have been 20 employee line of duty deaths from COVID-19.

More staff have died in Texas prisons than inmates have died in county jails. Texas' prison system is just more than twice the size, population-wise, of the county-jail population, so having more than ten-fold the number of inmate deaths is a big deal.

Grits doesn't know if Texas county jails (and by extension TCJS) are doing an exceptional job or if TDCJ is doing a bad one. To what extent does this relate to judges identifying vulnerable members of the pretrial population and diverting them from incarceration (the parole board refused to do so)? No way to tell from the available data. I also don't know whether this pattern of prisons having a bigger problem than jails holds true in other states. Certainly, most of TDCJ's deaths arise from just a handful of units, so maybe the problem is more isolated, even, than just prisons vs. jails. Regardless, that's quite a difference.

UPDATE: Death rates in Venezuala prisons doubled this year due to COVID, according to this report. By comparison, Texas prisons average just more than 400 inmate deaths per year, so if we had 151-190 extra inmate deaths in about seven months, making a back-of-the-envelope calculation, we may be looking at a 70-80% increase in prison death rates in Texas because of the virus. I'll try to hunt down the data to make this comparison more directly.


Phelps said...

It's important to also compare the actuarial context. The prison population is older than the jail population, so it may track like the general population -- almost the entirety of SARS-2 related deaths are in people with a 50% chance of dying that year already.

If we want a useful datum, we need to know how many deaths are normal in a year, and how far above or below that expected number we are.

crl1027 said...

I was a TDCJ inmate from August 2019 to August 2020. I was at the Mountain View unit from February 28, 2020 until my release on August 19 this year. I can tell you first hand that leadership, oversight, transparency, and accountability with the prison staff is extremely lacking. Mountain View for a long time was one of the very few TDCJ units that remained virus-free the longest. Despite guards not wearing their masks properly or at all or maintaining proper distances from inmates and coworkers. Ranking officers and the wardens didn’t care. If they didn’t see it first hand, it didn’t happen. But then Gov Abbott started opening Texas back up, and the prison guards, who come and go from the prison units, and live, shop, and socialize out in their communities, got even more lazy and careless about masks and distancing. Not long after, one after another of the guards were testing positive. In response, dorms where those guards had worked prior to testing positive were locked down in quarantine for weeks at a time, because just as the first two weeks had gone by, another officer who’d had contact with that dorm would test positive. When I left, both cellblocks were locked down still after at least three weeks, and several general population dorms had just been locked down. I was lucky my dorm wasn’t one of those locked down or my release would have been delayed. I also know that TDCJ stopped accurately reporting updates on known cases, recoveries, and deaths on their website and in public notices. Because the numbers were going up too high, way too fast.

Steven Michael Seys said...

Steve @Phelps is correct. If we want to do a study, we must do so empirically. The normal death rate for TDCJ prisoners in a non-pandemic year makes a good control.

Lauren said...

I am curious about whether counties might be releasing people so as not to count them in the numbers.

shannon_carter said...

Great post! I'm curious how reporting standards differ between TDCJ and TCJS- as far as I know, each county jail voluntarily self-reports COVID data and many counties aren't reporting any data at all. So I wonder if fewer cases/deaths could be a sign of missing data

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Phelp/SMS, if you think all the people who've died of COVID would have died anyway, you've got another think coming. TDCJ ususally has just more than 400 deaths per year. They're on track to exceed that by a bunch. We'll know the final % at years end, but the lack of final detail is no reason to pretend in the meantime that the virus is no big deal. TDCJ doesn't think that.

Phelps said...

In the long term, everyone who isn't a a greek god is going to die anyway, which is the part of the point. We have very accurate actuarial tables that tell us (because insurance companies are betting money on it) when people are likely to die. Some die sooner, some die later, but the insurance companies make money because they are overall accurate.

It is very disingenuous to accuse us of being some kind of "deniers" who don't think the virus is real or immaterial. We are literally asking for accuracy. I think that you might do well to look to your own mental and spiritual well being, because you are becoming bombastic and hyperbolic in your responses here on a broad swath of subjects. I don't think this kind of discourse is what you intend.

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