Urgent and Just Responses to COVID-19 in the Texas Justice System

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People incarcerated in state prisons or county jails often lack access to some of the most basic disease prevention measures. Certain cleaning supplies and sanitizers are classified as contraband, and running water, soap, and the freedom to social distance are often simply out of reach. Health experts warn that a serious and urgent response must be implemented.

Many Texas facilities are either unaware of the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for disease prevention, or they are hindered from adhering to these guidelines due to a lack of resources for incarcerated individuals and the staff and officers who work in correctional facilities. We fear the inevitable spread of the virus makes those who are incarcerated particularly vulnerable to the disease, and leaves facilities as a whole susceptible to a devastating outbreak.

While all people working or living in confinement settings are at risk, the virus will be especially dangerous for the rapidly growing aging population, those with disabilities, and those with chronic health issues. Moreover, the impact of an inadequate response reaches far beyond incarcerated people themselves. When this highly transmissible virus passes through facilities, confined individuals are likely to contract the virus from staff who enter and exit facilities daily—and staff who have not yet been infected will be at greater risk of becoming ill.

This will be exacerbated by the significant understaffing issues already plaguing Texas prisons and jails. As concerns about contracting the virus rise for staff members, and as childcare becomes less accessible for staff members who are primary caretakers, staffing facilities will become more difficult. This will create significant safety risks for both incarcerated people and staff. Today, Texas officials still have the opportunity to act decisively in the interest of public safety before the pandemic escalates to the level of severity that it has already escalated to in other countries. In addition to strategies to slow the spread of this virus and “flatten the curve,” we recommend mitigation strategies to prevent further dangerous situations, such as the riots and death that have occurred in facilities in China and Italy. This is a critical moment for Texas to align with best practices and protect those most vulnerable with a humane, safety-focused, public health response.

For this reason, a coalition of experts—many of those with lived experience—have come together to develop a list of the most urgent and necessary recommendations to ensure the well-being and safety of our communities in Texas jails, prisons, and juvenile detention facilities. The list of immediate recommended actions are grouped by segments of Texas’ massive justice system.

We ask that the Governor immediately issue directives to state agencies and recipients of state funds who have the authority to act on these directives to safely reduce correctional populations and protect incarcerated individuals and staff within correctional institutions.

You can read the entire list of directives, as well as the advocates' letter to the Governor, at https://www.texascjc.org/blog/mitigating-disaster-urgent-and-just-responses-covid-19-texas-justice-system