Each year worldwide, some 30 million people spend time in a prison or some other form of detention. Eleven million people are incarcerated around the world on any given day. The World Health Organization estimates that one in five of these inmates (mostly male) are infected with the AIDS virus.
There are more than 2 million people in prisons and jails in the United States. Roughly one in four of these people (mostly black men or other people of color) are infected with the AIDS virus.
The AIDS epidemic hit American prisons early and with deadly consequences. The first study of the AIDS virus in prison was conducted in 1985—four years into the AIDS epidemic that was already devastating the United States. Nearly half of the 766 inmates (322) were dead before the results of the study were published.
By 1995, some fourteen years into the “AIDS epidemic,” 34 percent of all state prison inmate deaths were attributed to AIDS infections.
AIDS INFECTION RATE in Prison 5X Free World
By 1999, 56 percent of all the U.S. prisoners infected with the AIDS virus were in four states—New York, Florida, Texas and California. At the time, the AIDS infection rate among inmates was five times higher than in the free world population.
The following year the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that the state of Alabama could isolate its AIDS-infected inmates from the general inmate population.
That was twenty years ago.
The AIDS epidemic today still poses severe challenges to the nation’s prison medical delivery services. But this nation’s prison system has survived that epidemic.
COVID Infects Nation’s Prison System
The nation’s prison system, however, may not survive the COVID 19 virus pandemic.
Prisoners are rioting, inmates are smuggling out cellphone videos describing the COVID 19 infections, and inmates are doing podcast interviews voicing the tension spreading among the general inmate population because of the COVID 19 virus potential.
And what is Texas doing about the COVID pandemic crisis?
TDCJ No Longer Accepting People From County Jails
The Texas Tribune reported on April 11, 2020, that the state’s prison system would no longer accept inmates from county jails as of April 13 because of the COVID 19 virus. The Tribune reported that Bryan Collier, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, informed county sheriffs that cases of the illness have been confirmed in 10 county jails and that the infection rate among state jail inmates had doubled in one week.
Texas to Keep COVID Cases in County Jails
In effect, the policy of the TDCJ, with the apparent approval of the Governor, is to try and keep the COVID virus contained in the state’s county jails where mostly non-convicted detainees remain because they cannot afford to make bail.
That’s perfectly okay with Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Local Judges Seek to Release Non-Violent Defendants
In response to orders in recent weeks by county judges in Travis, Harris, and Dallas counties that allow the release of non-dangerous inmates on personal recognizance bonds, Abbott issued an executive order that effectively overruled the judges’ orders.
In defending his actions, Abbott and Paxton told the 459th Criminal District Court in Travis County on April 10, 2020, that:
“Judges are considered ‘highly visible symbols of government under the rule of law.’ The use of personal bonds to release potentially violent felons, especially without any individualized inquiry, could have dangerous ramifications in the months ahead as the state struggles with the unprecedented dangers posed by COVID-19. Governor Abbott, using his lawfully-vested authority, issued GA 13 to respond to this real and meaningful threat to the public.”
Governor’s Order Discriminates Against Poor Defendants
Abbott and Paxton have no problem with “potentially violent felons” with the financial means to post bail (mostly white accused felons). Still, they bristle at allowing accused indigent defendants (primarily people of color) to be released from jail regardless of the lethal risk posed by the COVID virus.
On April 10, Travis County District Court Judge Lora Livingston issued a temporary restraining order blocking Abbott’s GA 13 order.
District Court Blocks Gov’s Order
ACLU attorney Angre Segura had this to say about Judge Livingston’s order:
“We are pleased that the Court recognized the urgency of this matter and the need to press pause while it is heard in full. The Governor has an important role to play in responding to this pandemic, but he cannot impede the ability of judges to use their discretion to release particular individuals, especially when lives are at risk.”
Judge Livingston’s order, however, did not stay in place long. Abbott and Paxton convinced the Texas Supreme Court on April 11, 2020, to block the judicial order and reinstate the Governor’s executive order.
So, in effect, this is where we are in Texas with the COVID virus and the state’s prison system:
Abbott and Paxton want to keep the virus contained in county jails, that house mostly people who have not been convicted of a crime and cannot afford the cost of bail. This logic allows TDCJ to protect inmates housed in the state prison system while causing the local jails to become breeding centers for the virus.
That is social and political insanity.
A rational penal policy in response to the COVID pandemic crisis would be to get as many people as possible out of county jails, where most occupants will eventually be released back into the community. This is doubly compelling for people detained in jail simply because they cannot afford bond. An effort to then escalate emergency parole and medical release of non-dangerous inmates housed in the state’s prison facilities could remove compromised individuals subject to the worst ravages of the virus.
Accused individuals should not die from a pandemic virus simply because they could not afford bail.
Only the warped political ideology of Gov. Abbott and Attorney General Paxton could support such a draconian penal policy.