September 29th, 2021
Study: Hispanic people in Texas prisons dying of COVID-19 at rate double their White peers, Black people dying at rate 1.6 times
A new study by the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project has found stark racial disparities among the hundreds of people who have died of COVID-19 in Texas prisons. According to the study, from April 1st, 2020 to March 31st, 2021, Hispanic people in state custody died at a rate 2.0 times greater than that of their White peers, and Black people died at a rate 1.6 times greater than that of their White peers.
Black and Hispanic people are overrepresented in the state’s prison system: together, these two groups comprise more than 65 percent of the Texas prison population although constituting roughly half of the state’s total population. But the study shows that, even within prisons, Hispanic and Black people were 1.96 and 1.66 times more likely, respectively, to die of COVID-19 than were White people.
According to the study’s authors, these disparities … “suggest that individuals in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) custody are subject to different experiences of incarceration, stratified by race and ethnicity, with inequitable levels of either COVID-19 risk, COVID-19 exposure, or barriers to health care utilization to prevent COVID-19 related mortality.” The authors call for further investigation into why Black and Hispanic populations — who, according to the authors, did not generally exhibit higher frequencies of pre-existing conditions than did the White population before the pandemic — have died at such greater rates by COVID-19.
The finding is likely not unique to Texas. Racial inequalities have been identified at multiple levels in the prison legal system and similar racial disparities likely exist in COVID-19 death rates behind bars in other states. Most state prison systems, however, do not publicly report information on COVID-19 infections and deaths by racial and ethnic categories, and thus are continuing to stifle further research.
The study also notes that, although Black and Hispanic populations faced especially dramatic increases, all people in TDCJ custody experienced sharply increased mortality rates due to COVID-19. Between the year preceding the pandemic and the first twelve months of COVID-19, White populations in Texas prisons saw a 52 percent increase in its overall mortality rate.
The standardized all-cause mortality rate across the TDCJ population as a whole, which includes deaths unrelated to COVID-19, increased by 85 percent, with COVID-19 accounting for at least 39 percent of those deaths.
The study also adds to existing literature showing that incarcerated people have faced much higher rates of infection and death by COVID-19 than their non-incarcerated peers. According to a previous study published by the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project with co-authors in the Journal of the American Medical Association, incarcerated people experienced infection rates 5.5 times that of their peers and death rates 3.0 times higher in the early months of the pandemic.
The full study may be found on the med-Rxiv preprint server and is currently pending academic review.
Jails and prisons have been dangerously undertesting their populations for COVID-19. That not only means cases have gone undetected and multiplied, but also that we don't know just how prevalent the virus has been. Our own analysis makes clear that true infection rates are likely much higher those reported.