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Report: Jail Populations Could Add 2,000 More COVID-19 Deaths In Texas, 100,000 More In U.S.

The ACLU report said that without reducing the jail populations across the country more people will spread COVID-19 into the community.

Veteran inmates at the unveiling of the “Brothers in Arms” program at Harris County Jail. Taken on July 25, 2019.

More than 2,000 additional people in Texas and almost 100,000 more across the country could die from COVID-19 if jail populations aren’t reduced, according to a new report from the ACLU. 

The report suggests that health models projecting 100,000 deaths in the United States fail to take into account the United States’ incarceration rate, and the probability of spread within the jails. Those models are underestimating the real number, which could be closer to 200,000 if efforts aren’t made to lower jail populations and stop the spread of COVID-19 in the jails, according to the report.

The report also suggests 2,030 more people in Texas would likely die from COVID-19 than projected, with a spread from the Harris County Jail alone accounting for an additional 805 deaths in the community, a 47% increase from the projected 1,696. Dallas County would see an increase of 738 deaths under the model, and Bexar County would see an increase of 217. Other parts of the country, like Orange County, would see increases as high as 200%.

The numbers do not include prisons or immigration detention facilities.

The rate of incarceration in the United States has become the country’s “Achilles heel,” according to Udi Ofer of the ACLU’s Justice Division.

“We expected it to be bad, but this is even worse than we thought, and it really should be a wake-up call to everyone,” Ofer said. “The United States has a unique challenge that other nations are not facing, and that is the fact that we are the biggest incarcerator in the world.” 

Read the entire report:

As of Thursday afternoon, there were 7,380 people jailed in Harris County. Many of those people are in jail on low-level offenses, while others are jailed because they can’t afford bail, regardless of whether they pose a threat to public safely, activists argue.

“If someone is already going to come home in a week, a month, six months, in a year,” Ofer said. “Bring them back home today. It just doesn’t make sense to expose that individual to this, you know, potential death sentence. And it doesn’t make any sense for the broader community as well, because there is no separation with this pandemic between what’s happening in jails and the broader community.”  

The ACLU worked with researchers from Washington State University, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Tennessee on the epidemiological models, tailored to jail and community populations, arrest and release rates, jail staff sizes, and other factors in the 1,242 counties with the largest jail populations in the U.S.

The models showed the total death count differed depending on policies in place. But the models suggested that even highly effective social distancing practices could lead to about 99,000 additional deaths without a reduction in jail populations.

Those deaths would not be confined to the jail population, according to the report. Due to the daily churn of people coming in and out of jail, and the number of staff members forced to work in confined spaces, the virus would likely spread out into the community at higher rates than expected, it says.

The report underscores the fears of people like Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who has for weeks called for a reduction in the county’s jail population. Gonzalez on Tuesday called the jail a “city within a city,” and said that the close quarters make it impossible to practice social distancing — one of the key points made in the ACLU report. 

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo last month announced an executive order to try to make those reductions. But a court order directed judges to disregard that order, saying Hidalgo had no authority to issue such an order. 

Gov. Greg Abbott also issued an executive order, banning certain people from release, citing public safety. The Texas Supreme Court upheld that order Thursday. 

But without changing those policies, Ofer said an additional loss of life is almost guaranteed.

“Anyone who thinks that what happens in jail remains in jail, they’re just absolutely wrong,” he said. “We need to see dramatic jail reduction, because otherwise we are never going to be able to contain this pandemic in the way that’s required.”

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Paul DeBenedetto

Senior Producer

Paul DeBenedetto is Houston Public Media's senior web producer, writing and editing stories for HoustonPublicMedia.org. Before joining the station, Paul worked as a web producer for the Houston Chronicle, and his work has appeared online and in print for the Chronicle, the New York Times, DNAinfo New York, and other...

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