Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmates are testing positive for the novel coronavirus at significantly higher rates than Texans who aren't incarcerated, according to new data from the agency that oversees Texas' prisons.
Late Tuesday, the department reported that, of the first 1,635 inmates tested as part of the state's new mass testing program for inmates, 189 had tested positive for COVID-19, an infection rate of 11.6%. The positive tests occurred at 13 units around the state.
Gov. Greg Abbott has touted Texas' declining infection rate, which has hovered around 5%, according to his office, as evidence that his plan to reopen the Texas economy is moving at an appropriate pace. Texas' growing case count, the governor said Monday, can be chalked up to an increase in testing.
The state is still waiting on thousands of additional test results from inmates and TDCJ staff. In the first seven days of expanded testing, according to the agency, 12 "strike teams" have collected more than 34,000 self-administered saliva tests from inmates and almost 8,000 tests from employees.
Since testing for COVID-19 began in the state prison system, the state has conducted 38,203 tests on inmates and 11,836 tests on employees. Of the 5,916 tests for which the state has received results, 1,380 have come back positive, for an infection rate of 23.3%.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a request from two inmates in state geriatric prison to require the state to take further steps to protect them from COVID-19. A federal trial court initially granted their request before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state.
The inmates who filed the petition — Laddy Valentine, 69, and Richard King, 73 — said the conditions they faced amounted to a violation of their Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment.
Arguing for the criminal justice department, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton claimed the state was following all federal regulations regarding the coronavirus in its prisons.
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Criminal justice advocates argue that the failure to check the coronavirus' spread in Texas' prison and jails puts the communities around them at risk in addition to inmates and staff. In late April, a model commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which is representing a group of inmates suing Dallas County over jail conditions, found that Texas could suffer an additional 2,000 COVID-19 deaths if prison populations are not reduced during the pandemic.
“As our local and state leaders get guidance on how best to handle the severity of the disease caused by novel coronavirus, it is critical that they weigh the role that jails and prisons serve as vectors for the spread of COVID-19 in both the communities inside and outside,” said Nick Hudson, policy and advocacy strategist for the ACLU of Texas. “The ACLU data model shows even if communities across the United States continue to practice social distancing and good hygiene, we will still experience much higher death rates if substantial action is not taken to reduce jail populations."
Thirty-two inmates in Texas state prisons are confirmed two have died from COVID-19. Another 27 inmates are thought to have died as the result of contracting the virus. Beginning April 8, the state began locking down facilities that recorded a positive coronavirus case for a minimum of 14 days. More than 41,000 inmates are under precautionary lock down.
Editor's note: This story originally misstated infection figures among state inmates who had been tested since testing began in the state prison system.