In recent years, Texas has emerged as a national leader in cutting crime and closing prisons. Now, as we confront COVID-19, state and local leaders must recognize the health of our fellow Texans behind bars, both those incarcerated and staff, is intertwined with the health of our communities.
Coronavirus cases have mushroomed in the state prison system and in local jails, with 70 percent of those tested in Texas prisons found to be positive. The majority of new cases in Bexar County are now attributed to the jail.
State prisons house disproportionate numbers of elderly and medically fragile individuals — in close quarters with limited sanitary and medical supplies. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which oversees state prisons, has for more than a month declined to accept admissions from county jails.
Fortunately, there are solutions that can minimize the potential for loss of life inside our correctional institutions and help ensure they don’t become an incubator for community spread. This danger stems from the rapid turnover in county jails, which mostly house pretrial detainees, and the tens of thousands of staff who work at prisons and jails and interact with their families every day.
In addition to improving sanitary conditions behind bars consistent with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, freeing up space can reduce the risk to those who remain inside somewhat less-crowded lockups. U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who has never been mistaken for being “soft on crime,” issued a directive designed to expedite the release of the elderly and medically vulnerable from federal prisons to home confinement, leading to a 70 percent increase in such placements.
Texas has a medical parole statute, but it is rarely used. In 2018, medical staff identified some 2,122 Texas prisoners who warrant consideration, but only 63 were released. In contrast, 503 Texas prison inmates died in custody in 2018 and some pass away during the many months that the reviews can take.
There are more than 9,600 inmates 60 or older in Texas prisons, and this group continues to increase even as the overall population falls. This trend is a major reason why taxpayers pay $750 million a year for prison health care costs, which included $3.1 million for just the 10 most expensive individuals in 2019. In addition to those 60 and older, there are others who are younger who have chronic health conditions that place them at greater risk of succumbing to COVID-19.
Regardless of the context, no one should be paroled without an individualized review that assesses risk with public safety as the top consideration. Fortunately, an evaluation of 188 elderly releases in Maryland found just a 3 percent recidivism rate compared with 40 percent overall. Re-entry support is also essential, and Texas continues to require a valid home plan prior to release, even after parole has been granted.
Carefully considered action consistent with public safety is also needed at the local level. In Collin County, conservative Sheriff Jim Skinner has asked police to rein in unnecessary arrests for Class C misdemeanors and instead issue citations. In Houston, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez identified 500 cases of elderly, medically infirm and low-risk nonviolent defendants who could be safely released from a jail of 8,000 people. One is an 82 year-old man who was jailed for seven months as a pretrial detainee for nonviolent drug charges. While some local courts are closed for in-person hearings, they should expedite video hearings as allowed by new Texas Supreme Court guidance.
Prioritizing county jail space for public safety is critical given that TDCJ is not accepting admissions and is using the pause to expand testing and medical resources. Moreover, properly vetted individualized consideration of pretrial defendants would reduce taxpayers’ exposure to federal litigation that both preceded and followed COVID-19, as well as potential wrongful death lawsuits.
Back in 2007, it was projected that Texas would spend billions of dollars building prisons, but through smart policies that bolstered proven alternatives such as drug courts, Texas will have closed 10 prisons by the end of this year while achieving more than a 30 percent drop in crime. Indeed, the virus is accelerating crime declines. Ultimately, Texas leaders can be confident that taking data-driven steps to address COVID-19 behind bars can benefit both public health and safety.