At least 84 Texas state prisoners have died after catching coronavirus, the second highest death toll among state prison systems. Those who have died include men serving life sentences, a man days away from his release, and others who were supposed to be locked up for a short time, reports the Texas Tribune. For months, advocates have pushed for the early release of some vulnerable prisoners — such as those with underlying health problems — as lockups became hot spots for the disease that has killed more than 2,600 people in the state. They argued that a smaller prison population would make it easier for inmates to socially distance and better protect prison employees who can spread the virus to their families and communities.
While some states have moved to release more parole-eligible prisoners or those nearing the end of their sentences, Texas practices have gone unchanged. “A period of incarceration for a number of people has turned into a death sentence,” said Peter Steffensen of the Texas Civil Rights Project. “That doesn’t change the fact that the parole board and the governor are both empowered to take a number of different steps that they could have and should have months ago.” Nearly 9,500 of 131,000 people in Texas prisons have tested positive for coronavirus. At least 10 prison workers have died after contracting the virus. More than 1,700 Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) employees were confirmed to have the virus. TDCJ has been criticized for its handling of the pandemic by prisoner rights advocates, family members, and inmates. Gov. Greg Abbott has rejected the idea of early prison releases, tweeting in March that “releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not the solution.” Last week, TDCJ again began accepting newly sentenced inmates on a limited basis after “significant consideration and planning,” a spokesperson said.