Danger is lurking inside our state prisons, and we can’t afford to delay action on safe and reasonable measures to mitigate it. Already, more than 1,300 incarcerated individuals and 400 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 in Texas. More cases are imminent, and coronavirus could spread rapidly, overwhelming staff, incarcerated individuals, and the prison healthcare system.
It is extraordinarily difficult to stop the spread of infectious disease inside a prison. Dorms and congregate settings preclude most social distancing. Asymptomatic staff unknowingly spread contagion, and neither staff nor the incarcerated population have sufficient access to personal protective equipment to prevent exposure and spread.
More people are likely to become sick, straining the prison system’s ability to provide immediate care. Most units have small clinics that are not equipped for intensive treatment, which will require transport to rural hospitals or the medical school in Galveston – facilities that are already strained beyond capacity. Outbreaks within the prison system will prolong outbreaks within the community as more and more prison personnel contract the illness and spread the virus to family members and others.
The pandemic will also create a dangerous staffing crisis. Staff or their family members will contract the illness, requiring them to quarantine. Also, with schools closed, many staff must remain home to care for children. In some prisons, staff are unwilling to conduct supervisory rounds for fear of exposure.
Some Texas prisons are on lockdown, requiring that everyone remain on their bunks indefinitely. Not only does this undermine prison and public safety by halting recidivism reduction programming, long-term lockdowns have led to suicides and riots.
To their credit, Governor Abbott and leadership of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), which operates more than 100 prisons, have taken quick action to mitigate the spread of disease, eliminating medical co-pays and halting group programming. The crisis is being taken seriously.
But more must be done to protect custodial staff, those who are incarcerated, and to reduce the strain on the healthcare system. This does not call for a blanket release, but rather using existing mechanisms that are targeted and individualized to ensure public safety.
The top priority should be evaluating the disproportionately large population of older and medically vulnerable people serving long sentences in Texas who are unlikely, and often unable, to recidivate. This group is most at risk of death from COVID-19 and will require the most intensive treatment from an overburdened system. Just as Attorney General William Barr has ordered for federal prisons, individualized reviews should be expedited to quickly identify those whose release would not threaten public safety.
Also, the Texas Supreme Court, which through its emergency powers can modify court proceedings, should streamline the release of people in state jails for low-level drug and property crimes who have accumulated sufficient “time credits” through work or programming to complete their sentence. Under current law, up to 20 percent of these state jail sentences may be discharged through such credits, but local courts hamstrung by the current crisis often don’t respond to TDCJ’s requests for these credits to be awarded.
Others have already been approved for release but remain in prison awaiting substance use treatment that may be unavailable as units scale back programming. The Parole Board should closely review these cases to determine if public safety would be ensured by completion of this programming through parole offices and community partners.. Also, other low-risk individuals are eligible for parole, and the Parole Board can expedite review.
In recent years, Texas has expanded parole approval rates while simultaneously reducing recidivism. To help people successfully transition, the Governor can authorize emergency funding for housing vouchers. Further, TDCJ can dedicate inactive programming staff to help release access to a Primary Care Network, reentry supports, and case management for those released who have mental illness, intellectual/developmental disabilities, or substance use disorders. Also, TDCJ can connect people with certified peer support to help them navigate toward successful reintegration.
Safeguarding Texas prisons and the public does not entail adopting policies that were ill-advised before COVID-19. Instead, it requires careful steps that have been long overdue and will eliminate bottlenecks created by the current crisis. State leaders should take action to protect prison staff and their families and communities, as well as the incarcerated individuals who pose no threat to their communities but are at high risk of suffering and dying from this pandemic.