Jail Standards Addressing COVID-19 Fell Short of Providing Full Protection to Jail Staff or Incarcerated Individuals

Kelli Johnson, Texas Appleseed

Eva Ruth Moravec, Executive Director, TJI


Report examined Central Texas jails and identifies weaknesses in policy and practice

AUSTIN, Texas, November 4, 2021 – Today, the Texas Justice Initiative and Texas Appleseed are releasing a report entitled, Infected with Fear: The Coronavirus in Central Texas Jails, that evaluates how area jails responded to the coronavirus pandemic. The research, funded by a grant from Good Measure, reveals inconsistent policies, ambiguity and confusion as jails attempted to maintain operations amid a new pandemic: Covid-19. The report also outlines areas of needed improvement that could reduce the transmission of future viruses and health crises in jails.

The report details various conditions in five county jails: Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis, and Williamson. Jail staff and incarcerated individuals were surveyed, and the report measures a number of jail practices against CDC guidelines.

“People in jail are at high risk of having severe Covid-19 because they are in confined spaces with close contact with others,” said Dr. Ellen Stone, director of research at Texas Appleseed. “It is particularly important to understand how jails have been managing Covid-19 and identify what can be done to further reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19 both within the jails and in the community.”

The research provides a snapshot of the impact Covid-19 has had on a population that is additionally vulnerable to infection because of the daily change in staffing and individuals entering and exiting the facilities. The report also highlights the continued challenges of collecting reliable, consistent data about the Texas criminal justice system, which the pandemic only worsened.

In April 2020, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) began to collect and publish reports containing data on Covid-19 infections in county jails both among jailers and incarcerated individuals, and also including the number of incarcerated individuals quarantined and the number of Covid-19 tests awaiting results. Over the next 14 months, each of the five counties studied in this report experienced several Covid-19 outbreaks with different patterns. While infections in Bastrop, Hays and Williamson county jails peaked last summer, infections in Travis and Caldwell county jails peaked in early 2021.

Yet even these facilities’ self-reported data are unreliable, preventing any potential real-time tracking of the virus and jail conditions. At certain points in time, infection rates in some county jails were higher than the general community, namely in Caldwell, Williamson and Hays.

To measure how effectively jails responded to the pandemic, researchers designed bilingual surveys on postcards that were hand-delivered or mailed to incarcerated individuals. Jail staff received an online survey that was circulated among departments and on social media.

“People who were incarcerated in area county jails were eager to talk about their experiences during the pandemic, as we saw in our overwhelming response rate of 40%,” said Eva Ruth Moravec, executive director of the Texas Justice Initiative. “Obtaining policies turned out to be the most difficult part of the research process, which was ironic as they should be easily accessible to the public.”

The report details the responses to survey questions in the five facilities — and how responses from jail staff sometimes contradicted responses from incarcerated individuals — and evaluates the responses on the context of jail policies and best practices nationwide.

A full copy of this report can be found on our organizations’ websites: Texas Appleseed and Texas Justice Initiative.

About Texas Appleseed
Texas Appleseed is a public interest justice center. Our nonprofit, celebrating our 25th anniversary in 2021, works to change unjust laws and policies that prevent Texans from realizing their full potential. We anchor a dynamic network of pro bono partners and collaborators to develop and advocate for innovative and practical solutions to complex issues. Texas Appleseed also conducts data-driven research that uncovers inequity in laws and policies and identifies solutions for lasting, concrete change. The many issues on which we work are united by the goal of greater justice. Visit www.texasappleseed.org, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn.

About Texas Justice Initiative
Texas Justice Initiative is a nonprofit organization that collects, analyzes, publishes and provides oversight for criminal justice data throughout Texas. Founded in 2016, TJI maintains a portal for data that is regularly updated and accessible to all for free. We push for increased transparency and accountability in criminal justice, and also work to improve data collection efforts in Texas whenever possible. Visit texasjusticeinitiative.org, Facebook and Twitter.