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80 percent of Texas inmates who died of COVID-19 had not been convicted of a crime: report

Roughly 80 percent of Texas county jail inmates who have died after contracting COVID-19 were in pre-trial detention and had not been convicted of any crimes, according to a new report from the University of Texas at Austin

Based on Texas county jail populations data, the university researchers found that of those who died from COVID-19 in a Texas county jail, 11 out of 14, or nearly 80 percent, had not received a conviction.

The report also noted that of those who died from the virus in Texas prisons, run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), most were charged with “person offenses,” which include robbery, simple assault, sexual assault and murder. 

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While the report noted that most people incarcerated in Texas prisons have been convicted of person offenses, this group makes up a disproportionately large share of those who died from COVID-19 when compared to those charged with other offenses. 

According to the TDCJ data, 73 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Texas prisons were people convicted of person offenses, while they make up just 57 percent of the state prison population. About 10 percent of coronavirus deaths were those convicted of a drug offense, while 6 percent faced a property conviction and 11 percent were serving time for some other crime.

The university found that at least 231 people have died from COVID-19 in the state’s correctional facilities as of early October. However, the researchers noted in the report that this number could likely be higher, as autopsies are sometimes conducted months after the inmate’s death. Some inmates also “died without ever having been tested for COVID.”

The researchers noted that those who had passed away due to a preexisting condition that was worsened by the virus were not counted in the total figure.

The report also only included data from state-operated prisons and county jails, and not coronavirus-related deaths that may have occurred at federal prisons or Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities in the state.

In a statement to The Hill, TDCJ communications director Jeremy Desel said the agency "has taken numerous steps to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within correctional facilities," and that "those robust measures continue today." 

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"While this report attempts to capture the impact of the virus on the prison population, what is noticeably absent is a discussion of the TDCJ's first in the nation, sustained, and aggressive mass asymptomatic testing campaign," Desel added. "To date, more than 65,000 employee and 219,000 inmate tests have been carried out. This is far more than any other correctional system in the country."

"When someone is diagnosed, TDCJ's medical partners, the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) and Texas Tech University Health Science Center (TTUHSC), provide a high level of care to those struggling with this illness. Most inmates have little to no symptoms and recover, but tragically some have succumbed to COVID-19," he continued. 

"As reflected in Texas' general population, most of these individuals were elderly and had numerous pre-existing conditions," Desel added. "Unlike many states, a thorough review of each inmate's death is conducted to include an autopsy or medical review by doctors to determine if the virus was the immediate cause of death."

As of Thursday, the Texas Department of Health and Human Services has recorded a total of nearly 994,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 19,000 deaths. 

The rate of infection in Texas has also been increasing as many states are facing a second wave of the virus. On Thursday, Texas recorded 5,756 newly reported infections, as well as 143 fatalities. 

The report on Texas prisons comes amid continued concern about the safety of correctional facilities across the country. 

Last month, a California appeals court ordered the San Quentin state prison to reduce its population by 50 percent, with the court citing the prison’s “deliberate indifference” to the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on the prison population. 

In its ruling, the court referred to San Quentin’s coronavirus outbreak as “the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history.” At the peak of the outbreak, nearly 75 percent of the inmate population had tested positive for the coronavirus and 28 prisoners had died, according to The Associated Press. 

The outbreak reportedly occurred when infected prisoners were sent to San Quentin from another Southern California facility without being tested.

Updated: Nov. 13 at 3:42 p.m.