A troubling number of people in Texas prisons and jails who have been approved for release on parole are dying in custody before they ever step foot outside prison gates, according to a new report from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. Researchers also found that deaths among parole-approved people are not unique to the COVID-19 pandemic: while COVID-related deaths increased the total number of deaths in custody in Texas during the pandemic, at least as many parole-approved people died from non-COVID-related health issues between January 2019 and January 2020.
In "Dead Man Waiting"—a first-of-its-kind analysis—researchers with the COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project at the LBJ School compared deaths among the parole-approved population at Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) correctional facilities during the pandemic (March 2020–March 2021) with deaths during the previous year (January 2019–January 2020). Researchers found at least 68 parole-approved people — the vast majority of whom had served most of their sentence — died while awaiting release, and only 18 of these deaths were due to COVID-19. Their findings raise serious questions about the state’s parole system and why people who met the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole (BPP)’s stringent approval guidelines could end up dead before their release.
Report: Dead Man Waiting: A brief profile of deaths in Texas prisons among people approved for parole release (COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project, June 2021)
"One of our most stunning findings is that a significant number of people approved for release on parole remain in custody," said Michele Deitch, lead author of the report and a distinguished senior lecturer at the LBJ School.
Among the over 10,000 parole-approved people currently in Texas prisons, more than half must successfully complete certain re-entry programs as a condition for their release. Researchers point to a critical barrier in the parole process that helps explain, in part, why this population remains in custody — these programs are not available until after someone is approved for parole. Some have remained in prison for another year or more while waiting to complete — or in many cases to even begin — the required programming.
"These are people who had done their time, but were told they need to wait a few more months to complete another program, only to end up dying before they were ever able to walk out of the facility," said Deitch.
Family shares story of paroled inmate dying from Covid while awaiting release (NBC News, June 15, 2021)
Parole-approved people had to wait for release even longer during the pandemic, when TDCJ had to suspend programming in order to mitigate the spread of COVID in its facilities. COVID-related delays accounted for a 50% increase in the number of months people waited for release before dying in custody. These increased wait times came at a time when experts were urging agencies and policymakers to hasten releases in order to get the most vulnerable people out of harm's way and to make it easier for agencies to implement critical public health protocols, like physical distancing, in crowded prisons.
"COVID dramatically exacerbated the problem of keeping people in custody after they had been approved for parole," said Destiny Moreno, co-author and graduate student researcher with the COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project. "But the problem is much bigger. In the pandemic and non-pandemic years we studied, the majority of parole-approved people died from diseases such as cancer, heart conditions, and Hepatitis C."
To reduce the amount of time parole-approved people wait to be released and prevent future deaths, researchers recommend Texas modify its parole process to offer all programming earlier, with enough time to meet the parole board's requirements for release. Offering programs earlier could also have a positive impact on a person's behavior during their incarceration. Recommendations also include allowing parole-approved people to take programs in the community, where research shows services are more affordable and lead to better outcomes, and offering immediate release to parole-approved people with serious health conditions.
"These are people who had done their time, but were told they need to wait a few more months to complete another program, only to end up dying before they were ever able to walk out of the facility." —Michele Deitch
"Texas's approach to rehabilitative programming in prison should not result in an unintended death sentence," said Alycia Welch, co-author and associate director of the COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project. "Our recommendations ensure public safety and, most importantly, save lives."
This report was produced as part of the COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, with support from Arnold Ventures. The COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project is led by Project Director Michele Deitch and Associate Director Alycia Welch, who are supported by a team of graduate student researchers.