Prison Staff Death Toll Spiked In Texas After Covid-19 Protocols Were Relaxed

October 8, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

September became the deadliest month for employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even as coronavirus fatalities dropped across the state, a Dallas Morning News report said. Covid-19 led to the death of at least 13 staff members last month.

Among those who succumbed to the virus were one correctional officer who was planning a wedding, and another who had retired and then returned to work in his early 60s. The oldest victim among the prison staff was nearly 80 years old, the Dallas Morning News report added.

Since March 2020, more than 14,000 prison staff members —  about half the workforce — have caught the virus. Currently, nearly 600 are infected.

Overcrowding, old infrastructure in prisons, and inadequate social distancing behind bars have made jails and prisons a hotbed for Covid-19, per one report. But prisons in other states kept strict safety protocols in place to stem the spread of the virus, even doubling down on mask and vaccine mandates as the highly contagious delta variant ravaged the country. Texas, however, had either relaxed or rejected many of those precautions.

Vaccine mandates are banned in the state. Texas also no longer requires masks at nearly one-quarter of its state-run jails and prisons. These decisions, public health and prison policy experts say, are worrisome and reveal that the uptick in staff deaths could be a trend with no end in sight — one they say the state acknowledges is a problem but is doing little to stop.

Governor Greg Abbott allowed jails to be among the few places that were able to require masks, which the prisons department did for more than a year. But he didn’t exempt state prisons from his ban on vaccine mandates. That meant prison staff could refuse vaccinations, and many have.

At the end of September, less than half of prison employees had been fully vaccinated, compared to 57% of inmates, according to the prisons department. Both are below the statewide vaccination rate of 62% of Texans over the age of 12.

On July 1, as the delta variant spread across Texas, the prisons department dropped its mask mandate at units that reached a combined vaccination rate of 70% for prison staff and inmates, the Dallas Morning News report says. Visitors, who were welcomed back into state-run jails and prisons, also were no longer required to wear masks in units that met the goal. Currently, 22 state-run jails and prisons no longer require masks.