We’re three years into the pandemic and while the nation seems to be returning to a semblance of normalcy as mask mandates are lifted and a majority of states have over half their population vaccinated, it seems there is still much to learn from the jail and prison system. Since COVID-19 embedded itself into our lives, lawmakers across the country—and specifically in Texas—have failed to reduce prison and jail populations enough to slow down the spread of the virus.
In fact, prison and jail populations are continuing to increase despite facilities reaching maximum occupation, causing incarcerated people to get sick and die at disproportionate rates when compared to the general public, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
So, as the rest of the nation moves on from the harrowing phenomenon of infection and death that came with the coronavirus, let us reflect on the current state of affairs as it concerns the prison and jail system. Without sufficient policies, people will continue to die needlessly, either alone in isolation without access to adequate resources or too close for comfort next to another inmate from overcrowding.
This is the pandemic in the American incarceration system.
Current Jail and Prison Policies for COVID-19 in Texas
Navigating the current landscape of incarceration policies and practices can be a bit of a confusing nightmare for most people if they’re not judges, lawyers, jail or prison officers, wardens…the list goes on. That’s why it’s imperative you take a look at the current guides for incarceration by visiting the Texas government website here.
Before March of 2021, Governor Greg Abbott prohibited in-person visitation at jails. Afterward, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards issued their policy that counties make an in-person visitation plan that should be submitted to the commission for approval, which could take an undetermined amount of time. Around the same time, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice allowed in-person visits to resume at all their units in the state as long as registration was made over the phone for face-to-face visits.
At the federal level, visitation was suspended when the pandemic began, but today inmates may have social visits with restrictions.
Visitation is important for inmate morale and the human need to socialize and connect with family or friends. Being isolated from life as they knew it as a result of their alleged or convicted criminal behavior can take a major hit to their mental and physical health.
On the bright side, some county and municipal jails are seeking to reduce their incarcerated population to reduce the spread of COVID-19, which absolutely ravaged the inmate population with high infection and death rates. And Gov. Abbot’s executive order which banned release without bail for inmates who were accused or were convicted of violent offenses in the past can now be released if they paid bail while awaiting their court date. Sheriffs and jail administrators are even exploring options for the release of non-violent misdemeanor offenders through a cite and release plan in order to reduce overcrowding.
Stalled court cases lead to dangerous overcrowding
While there is support for reducing overcrowding by some jail and prison officials, that doesn’t change the reality of the situation many facilities and inmates are facing in the present. While awaiting court dates, which are repeatedly delayed because of the pandemic backlog of cases, many defendants end up stuck in county lockup—and now county jails are running out of room, the Texas Tribune reports.
As a result, thousands are being killed from the coronavirus, spurring alarm in Texas jails unequipped to deal with police arrests as social distancing is all but nonexistent in these facilities. That means people are being killed who haven’t even been convicted of a crime yet in deplorable living conditions.
“In my 45 years in law enforcement, I cannot remember things ever being this bad,” said Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith in an email to local judges. He was referencing the overcrowding problem at his jail in which he was 100 inmates overcapacity in March.
It’s clear there’s a real problem law and policymakers need to be addressing in a much more efficient way, as the traditional route isn’t cutting it. Instead, it’s putting human beings at a disproportionate risk—and jail and prison workers are included in that risk.
Texas Comes In At #1 for COVID-19 Deaths; Suicide Rates Skyrocket
Overcrowding in Texas, among other things, has catapulted the Lone Star state to the top position for COVID-19 deaths. Right now, there are more than 800 active COVID-19 cases among inmates and nearly 500 among TDCJ employees, according to Spectrum News. And the COVID Prison Project backs that up with data showing Texas leads the nation in COVID-19 deaths of incarcerated people and prison and jail staff.
And a lack of COVID policy protections for inmates and employees isn’t the only problem Texas faces. In 2020, there were 50 prison suicides—the highest number in at least 20 years—despite the prison population decreasing by around 20,000 that year. And 2021 exceeded that number, according to the Marshall Project, despite the state not tracking suicide attempts consistently.
The rate of suicide has likely increased because of worsening conditions during the pandemic, isolation, and fear of the virus itself, in addition to a 500% increase in solitary confinement nationwide, sewage leaks, riots, and compromised food served in meager rations.
Something’s gotta give. And policy change might just be the first necessary step to addressing these deadly trends.
Policy Change Is Necessary and Real Action Is Required
There is potential to turn things around. First things first, local judges need to approve more defendants for bail, as jails held a larger share of unconvicted people than ever before, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. And these jails continue to hold too many people for low-level offenses and technical violations, creating overcrowding issues and straining state resources.
The initial changes made to the incarceration system during 2020 may have been temporary to attempt to reduce the inmate population for the health and safety of as many people as possible, but those changes suggest the practicable feasibility of a policy shift is more likely than previously thought—and more lives can be saved instead of put at risk for the sake of capital gain. When pressed, states can find ways to function with a codependence on correctional control.
From 2020 to 2021, the carceral system shrunk by 10 percent, a real start to solving some of the deeply rooted problems in the incarceration system.
Looking to the future, there seems to be a need for alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenses and superficial violations. That’s how mass incarceration can be eradicated and actual justice can be achieved. Visit A-EZ Out Bail Bonds today to learn more about the resources at your disposal, including bail bond services, among other things.