58% of Texas Prisoners Who Died of COVID-19 Were Eligible For Parole

A majority of Texas prisoners who died of COVID-19 were eligible for parole, according to a new report from academic researchers.

The finding was contained in a preliminary report released this week by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin. Data on prisoner deaths, taken from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), revealed that a substantial number of those who died in custody may have been eligible for release before succumbing to the virus.

The report found that 58 percent of COVID-19 prison deaths were among inmates who were eligible for parole, with nine prisoners already approved for release when they died in custody. Another 11 prisoners died within one year of their mandatory release dates, with a further 10 dying within two years of their release dates.

Researchers also found that 11 of the 14 individuals who died due to the virus in Texas county jails were being held while awaiting trial and had not been convicted of any crime. Of those who died after being convicted of a crime and sent to prison, most were incarcerated for "person offenses," which the report defines as "a broad range of crimes, including robbery, simple assault, sexual assault, and murder."

Although those convicted of person offenses constitute a majority of all prisoners in Texas, a disproportionate number of person crime convicts died of COVID-19. The report suggests that a possible reason could be that person crimes result in longer sentences and older prisoners, with advanced age being a major risk factor for virus deaths. The average age of death in prisons was 64, while the average age in jails was 56.

Prisoner with Face Mask
The increased potential for disease transmission in the confined spaces of prisons and jails has been a cause for concern amid the COVID-19 pandemic. MarinaZg/Getty

The report states that a total of 231 COVID-19 deaths were reported at TDCJ facilities between April 7 and October 4, including 27 deaths among staff, 190 among those incarcerated in prisons and another 14 among prisoners in county jails. A TDCJ dashboard showed more than 25,000 cases of the virus at Texas prisons, including over 2,200 active cases as of Thursday.

The true number of deaths could be higher, with the report finding that 329 deaths attributed to "other" causes between April and September far outpaced deaths in seen during the same period over the 5 years preceding the pandemic. Deaths caused by the virus at federal correctional facilities located in Texas, along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities, were not included in the report.

Texas has the second highest COVID-19 prison infection rate in the country, trailing only Florida, while those incarcerated were dying at "disproportionately high rates" when compared to both the general population and prisoners in other states. The state's prison death rate was 140 percent higher than the state as a whole and 35 percent higher than the national prison population, according to the report.

"Parole decision are not made by TDCJ they are made by the Board of Pardons and Paroles," TDCJ Director of Communications Jeremy Desel told Newsweek in a statement. "Being approved for release virtually always comes with board mandated conditions that include programs that must be completed before release. TDCJ Has no involvement in the management of county jails or the court systems."

"While this report attempts to capture the impact of the virus on the prison population, what is noticeably absent is a discussion of the TDCJ's first in the nation, sustained, and aggressive mass asymptomatic testing campaign," he added. "To date, more than 65,000 employee and 219,000 inmate tests have been carried out. This is far more than any other correctional system in the country."

Nearly 1 million COVID-19 cases, including more than 19,000 deaths, had been reported among the general population in Texas as of Thursday.

Update 11/13, 5:00 p.m.: This article has been updated to include a statement from TDCJ Director of Communications Jeremy Desel.