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At least 231 died of COVID-19 in Texas prison and jail: NPR

A Federal Bureau of Prisons truck passes barbed wire fences at the Federal Medical Center Prison in Fort Worth, Texas in May 2020.

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LM Otero / AP

A Federal Bureau of Prisons truck passes barbed wire fences at the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas in May 2020.

LM Otero / AP

At least 231 people in Texas prisons and prisons have died from COVID-19, including 27 employees, 14 in prison and 190 in prison, according to a new report by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.

The report’s lead researcher, Professor Michele Deitch, told NPR’s Weekend edition that the main conclusion from the report is the overall “devastating sacrifice of COVID for the Texas prison system.”

Nine of the dead prisoners had already been granted parole and were awaiting release, while another 21 had served at least 90% of their sentences. Almost three-quarters of those who died in prison did not have a life sentence and 58% of them were entitled to parole.

In district prisons, 80% of those killed are not even convicted of a crime. In one Duncan Prison, almost 6% of the entire prison population died; this facility has “mostly geriatric prisoners,” Deitch said.

NPR contacted the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for their response to the investigation, but received no response. The department went on to drastically expand the tests, which Deitch called “great,” but said, “You can’t ignore the fact that there are 190 dead in our prisons. These are numbers that testing doesn’t explain.”

This is a problem that continues to exist in prisons and prisons in other states, but some have taken aggressive steps to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths among inmates. In New Jersey, for example, thousands of prisoners were released to slow the spread. Deitch says other states “have taken more aggressive measures to protect people inside, offering hand sanitizer and hygiene products, cleaners, soap and masks, of course.”

Deitch spoke with NPR about the scope of the problem for prisoners and staff and what could be done next.

Highlights from the interview

About how the virus has affected staff

The situation for the staff is extremely difficult. Texas is a place that has a very bad problem of staff shortages and many employees are required to work overtime and make additional shifts in other facilities, which creates not only a risk of exposure to these employees, but also a risk of moving the virus from facility to facility.

What do the findings mean about the risk of spreading in the community

One of the lessons of the pandemic is that there is no clear line between what happens in our prisons and prisons and what happens in the community. We have staff who move back and forth every day and take what they are exposed to in the community, bring it into the facilities and vice versa.

What solutions does it offer?

I think our figures point to some obvious groups that need to be targeted. Again, experts recommend reducing populations. You need to get the most vulnerable people out of the way. Prisons are one of the most densely populated facilities we have, and we need to be able to give people more space. So our report looks at people who are entitled to parole – 58% of people who die in prison were entitled to parole. Nine people died after being granted parole, but while they were still waiting to be released. We can look to speed up these releases.

We also found that 80% of people who died were over 55 years old. This is an age that has passed through the years prone to crime. So there seems to be a very low risk to public safety being directed at these people for release.

Isabella Gomez and Martha Ann Overland produced and edited the audio version of this story. Christiana Silva, produced for the network.

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