Apr 24, 2024 - COVID

COVID's prison death toll in Texas

Data: The Marshall Project via U.C. Irvine and Brigham and Women's Hospital; Note: Rates calculated using prison populations at the start of each year; Chart: Axios Visuals

More Texas prisoners died during the early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic than in any other state, but the true death toll in prisons across the country is still unknown, researchers say.

Why it matters: Although it's long been clear that prisons struggled to contain COVID outbreaks, there's still no official pandemic prison death toll — leaving the work up to a "patchwork of research groups and reporters," per the Marshall Project, a nonprofit criminal justice news outlet that analyzed the findings.

Driving the news: Mortality in U.S. prisons increased 77% in 2020 compared to 2019 — more than three times higher than the free population during the worst phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study published in Science Advances

  • In Texas, there were more than 49 deaths per 10,000 incarcerated people — nearly 700 total deaths — in 2020, a roughly 60% rise in the mortality rate from just one year prior.
  • The researchers, out of the University of California, Irvine, and Brigham and Women's Hospital, combined disparate state and federal prisons data to create what they consider "the most comprehensive understanding to date of in-custody mortality during 2020."

Flashback: The Marshall Project's analysis reflects earlier findings from University of Texas researchers.

  • UT researchers found that people in Texas prisons tested positive for COVID-19 at a rate 40% higher than the national prison population in 2020 and a 490% higher rate than the state's general population.
  • The report, released in November 2020, excluded federal prisons and Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities.

What they're saying: Michele Deitch, who directs the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs and led the 2020 prison research, noted that the pandemic also kept people from getting access to health care, including preventive care.

  • "Even if a lot of the deaths aren't formally attributable to COVID, we know that there were disproportionate numbers of deaths during that time period, and people were also dying from other conditions that they shouldn't have been dying from," Deitch told Axios.

The bottom line: Understanding COVID's true impact in prisons is key to learning "from what happened, so we don't do this again in the future when we have another pandemic, another crisis," study lead author Naomi Sugie told the Marshall Project.

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