The Tyler Paper’s exceptional and thorough series, “Plaguing Prisons,” is helping to shine the spotlight on how the coronavirus pandemic affects those in jails and prisons. Reporter Cory McCoy reminds us that the measures we’re taking to protect ourselves, from social distancing to frequent hand-washing and the use of hand sanitizers, are all but impossible behind bars.
The result is that prisons and jails have become COVID-19 hotspots. A full 70 percent of inmates test positive to the virus. In Bejar County (San Antonio), most new COVID-19 cases come from the jail.
The potential effects of this go far beyond our state’s prison and jail populations. Staff members intermingle with our communities, and many inmates will be released—possibly bringing the coronavirus home with them.
But there are measures we can take to protect those in prisons and jails, while still ensuring that our communities stay safe. Public health and public safety need not be a trade-off.
First, we can expand the use of compassionate release. Texas has a provision for medical parole, but it’s rarely used. In 2018, for example, prison officials identified 2,122 inmates who met the program’s criteria. Yet only 63 were released. We can reduce the prison population — targeting those most vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19 — by increasing medical paroles.
This could even help Texas save money. There are 9,600 inmates in Texas prisons age 60 or older, and that number continues to grow — even as our prison population falls. Older inmates simply cost more, due to increased medical needs. Texas spends about $750 million per year on prison medical expenses — and the 10 sickest inmates cost $3.1 million in 2019 alone.
Releasing inmates most at risk for COVID-19 can be done selectively and safely. A Maryland study looked at the release of 188 elderly inmates, and found just a 3 percent recidivism rate (compared to an average rate of 40 percent). We have the tools available to evaluate each candidate for release for risks to public safety. We can pair that with post-release support and a valid home-plan for parole.
Actions can also be taken in Smith County. In Collin County, for example, conservative Sheriff Jim Skinner has asked local police departments to limit unnecessary arrests for Class C misdemeanors, and instead issue citations. This helps keep low-level offenders from going to into (and soon leaving) a high-risk environment for the coronavirus.
In Harris County, officials were able to identify 500 elderly, medically infirm and low-risk nonviolent individuals (out of the county jail’s population of 8,000) who could safely be released. Smith County could follow suit. It could also check whether inmates in jail simply because they can’t afford bond could be released and monitored.
Texas learned long ago that a high level of incarceration doesn’t equate to increased public safety. Back in 2007, it was projected that Texas would need to spend billions of dollars to add thousands of prison beds. But Texas took a smarter approach to crime — focusing on reducing recidivism, and adding more effective options such as drug courts. The result is we’re closing prisons, not opening them — and crime is dropping.
In fact, the coronavirus pandemic is increasing the rate at which crime is falling. We can be confident that the measures we take to protect our communities — and our fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, sisters and brothers behind bars — need not come at a cost to public safety.
As the Tyler Paper’s outstanding series demonstrates, inmates are, in fact, someone’s son or daughter. We must not forget them as we deal with COVID-19.
Marc A. Levin is the chief of policy and innovation for the Right on Crime initiative at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.