COVID has caused the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to experience extreme staff losses and infection rates, compounding its already severe understaffing problem.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has lost 78 staff and had over 20,000 employee infections between the onset of the pandemic and Jan. 31, 2022, according to a new report from the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. The report also shows that Texas has the highest rate of infection of all the country's largest prison systems.
The report, titled "Canary in the Coal Mine: A Profile of Staff COVID Deaths in the Texas Prison System," reveals that the Texas prison agency has some of the highest rates in the country of COVID deaths and infections among staff. According to the report, TDCJ has lost more employees to COVID than any other prison system in the country. Even when controlling for the size of the state's prison system, TDCJ has some of the worst COVID outcomes among staff in the country. The rate of COVID deaths among TDCJ employees is three times higher than the national average for prison staff, which is already much higher than that of the general public.
- Report: Canary in the Coal Mine: A Profile of Staff COVID Deaths in the Texas Prison System
- Learn more about the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab and its research
Beyond the loss of life, the extremely high death toll for staff means that TDCJ has lost over 1,000 years of employee experience due to COVID. Additionally, during the height of the Omicron surge, more than 13.5% of prison employees had active COVID infections, meaning that hundreds of workers were absent because they were quarantined.
"These deeply troubling statistics provide a window into the impact that COVID is having on the Texas prison system," said Michele Deitch, a co-author of the report and the director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. "TDCJ stopped reporting deaths of incarcerated people from COVID back in January 2021, making it difficult to assess the true toll of the virus behind bars. But the fact that staff are still dying from COVID tells us that the pandemic is still far from over for people who live and work in prison, and we are likely just seeing the tip of the iceberg."
"[T]he fact that staff are still dying from COVID tells us that the pandemic is still far from over for people who live and work in prison, and we are likely just seeing the tip of the iceberg." —Michele Deitch
As the report suggests, staff deaths and infections may be a proverbial "canary in the coal mine," warning that the true impact of COVID in Texas prisons has yet to be fully revealed.
The impact of COVID on the agency's workforce is exacerbating TDCJ's severe understaffing problem, which predated the pandemic. Texas prisons are currently understaffed by 7,000 correctional officers and, in some facilities, up to 67% of correctional officer positions are unfilled. Such extreme understaffing can lead to inhumane and even dangerous conditions behind bars for incarcerated people and staff, leading even more TDCJ employees to quit.
Despite these serious concerns, the report shows little is being done to protect prison staff from COVID. The rate of vaccination among TDCJ employees is below the national average, and beginning in the summer of 2021, the agency started rolling back protective measures such as masking and testing at many of its facilities even as the Delta and Omicron variants swept through Texas. According to the report, the deadliest month of the pandemic for staff was September 2021, when the agency lost 13 employees to COVID during the surge of Delta variant cases.
"Rolling back mitigation measures not only puts incarcerated people and TDCJ staff at risk, but it also contributes to the spread of COVID-19 in the community because staff and visitors regularly move between prisons and other locations," said Alycia Welch, co-author of the report and associate director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab. "With variants continuing to emerge, people who live and work in prisons in Texas will continue to die or get very ill unless protective measures are taken."
"With variants continuing to emerge, people who live and work in prisons in Texas will continue to die or get very ill unless protective measures are taken." —Alycia Welch
Correctional health experts have emphasized since the start of the pandemic that prison is an extremely dangerous place during an outbreak because of the inability to social distance, unsanitary conditions, poor ventilation, and the many people with serious medical conditions.
The report recommends that justice system stakeholders in Texas immediately implement measures to remove the most vulnerable people from prison and to reduce the population safely and quickly. It also recommends the reinstatement of masking and testing requirements in all prison units, regardless of vaccination rates. Moreover, the report calls on TDCJ to resume reporting data immediately about COVID deaths of incarcerated people and to also report information about how many staff and residents have received booster shots.