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Texas has murdered more than 200 incarcerated people since the pandemic began.

Maybe “murder” is too strong a word. But what do you call it when preventable death occurs because of apathy or perhaps deliberate indifference? What word applies when someone knows that leaving their stepchild in a hot car can kill them, but leaves them in there anyway? 

Prisoners share a similar vulnerability as small children because we depend on our guardians for survival. If they refuse to feed me, I starve. If they refuse me medicine, I suffer. If they leave me helplessly exposed to a deadly virus — well, then maybe “murder” isn’t too strong after all. I bet many loved ones of those more than 200 deceased victims would probably agree.

Would any of those people have died if they were free rather than trapped in a concrete incubator? Maybe, but at least they would have stood a chance. They could mask up, social distance, and possibly even self-quarantine. But their guardians had made all of this impossible. 

I understand you can’t release every prisoner. A number of American prisons did release some non-violent, low risk inmates to save them, but not Texas, of course. Bible Belt politicians can’t risk being perceived as too liberal or merciful to people in prison. 

Texas has executed more people by far than any other U.S. state. Of 1,529 legal executions that were carried out in the U.S. between 1976 and 2020, 570 took place in Texas, according to the Marshall Project. There have even been years when Texas more than doubled the executions of all the rest of the states combined.

Given this behavior, it should be no surprise that more prisoners have died from COVID-19 in Texas than in every other state, including the much larger federal prison system. 

In April, around the peak of the first coronavirus wave, Texas had more than 10,800 people who had already been granted parole but remained caged pending technical issues. Only Texas knows how many of those parolees died or suffered permanent afflictions from COVID-19. A recent report from the University of Texas found that at least 42 of these people died in the first year of the coronavirus.

I read about some of the Texas prisoners killed with COVID-19, and it surprised me how many had almost completed their sentence. A 47-year old man had served over 3 years out of a 4-year sentence in Bowie County. That’s a pretty lenient sentence in a Bible Belt state — unless, of course, it turns into a death sentence, as it did for him. Another victim had served 5 years of a 5-year sentence. Don’t ask me about the math — it’s what TDCJ reported on their website. Perhaps he was only hours away from having his life saved.

At first, it appeared to us that Texas prison officials would just ignore the pandemic. But pressure from inmate families and advocacy groups forced the prison system to lock us down, issue us face masks made from prison uniforms, and spray floors, walls and other rarely-touched surfaces with bleach.

But it’s been pretty well established that COVID-19 is largely spread through tiny spit droplets floating in the air. The less ventilation, the longer they do their aerial dance. Put a large group of people in the same area, and you have a mass infection. You won’t find many places on earth that cram more people into a relatively small space than prisons, especially in Texas.

Not all of the 2.3 million souls in the world’s most bloated criminal justice system are bad people. Not all are even guilty. Countless prisoners are incarcerated merely because they couldn’t afford justice or didn’t know the right people. 

Yes, there are some sociopaths and numbed consciences in prison, but in a civilized society, even sociopathic inmates don’t deserve deliberate exposure to COVID-19.

 

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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John Adams

John Adams is a contributing writer incarcerated in Huntsville, Texas, who has served more than two decades of a life sentence. He said writing was his only chance to have a voice, having lost his rights as “a real human being” a long time ago. Because such a large percentage of prisoners are functionally illiterate, he feels like his writing gives them a voice, too.