Monthly Archives: December 2015

Inmate Deaths In Texas Prisons

According to figures released by TDCJ, and recently shared by  Grits For Breakfast, roughly 400 to 450 people die while in TDCJ custody each year. See Grits’ Blog Post That means, on average, there is more than one inmate death every single day in TDCJ. My blog post is intended to answer the questions that naturally arise from such information. Who are these people who die in custody? What is the cause of their deaths? Are these deaths preventable? How many committed suicide? How many were executed? What happens after they die? And, perhaps the biggest question of all, assuming many of these folks did not die in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, or even 50’s… did these people all really have to get old AND die in prison (or prison nursing home/hospice)?

TDCJ Cemetary Pic
Grave Markers at the Joe Byrd Cemetery in Huntsville

Is 400 to 450 people a lot?

Before assuming the worst about connecting death with TDCJ in the same sentence, it is important to remember that the inmate population in Texas state prisons is approximately 150,000. With that many people locked up, some deaths are inevitable. Therefore, at least some of the 400-450 would be expected to die, irrespective of where they happened to be living when their death occurred. In order to demonstrate this important point, let’s consider free world deaths vs. prison deaths.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the overall death rate in the United States for the year 2013 was 821.5 people per 100,000. See CDC website Therefore, since we have approximately 150,000 prisoners in TDCJ, a typical community in the United States with the same number of people as TDCJ’s inmate population would actually be expected to have a death rate of over 1,200 people, which is almost 3 times the death rate inside TDCJ. However, before we simply conclude that the TDCJ death rate is really low, it’s important to remember that a pretty high percentage of the prisoner population is in good physical health, and a very high percentage of prisoners are under the age of 40. The age of the people in a given population group is an extremely important variable when looking at death rates,and prisoners tend to be pretty young compared to the overall population.

Executions

With all the energy and attention typically directed at the death penalty, it is important to remember that Texas “only” executes between 12 and 15 people per year, on average. See Wikipedia Therefore, executions account for around 3% of deaths in custody at TDCJ. We never seem to hear much about the other 97% (400+ people) who pass away while in custody in Texas prisons, and that is a shame.  What interests me, as a Texas parole attorney, is how many  of these 400+ people could have, or should have, been paroled long before they died.

Suicide

Prison can be a very difficult place, and for some inmates, it can completely overwhelm them. According to A September Grits For Breakfast Blog Post, 31 inmates committed suicide in 2014, and hundreds of others attempted suicide in the same year. 2015 figures are likely to be similar, based on what I’ve seen thus far. Suicides account for approximately 7% of Texas prison deaths, but that percentage could be much larger if more of those who attempted suicide had succeeded in their attempts. This suicide/attempted suicide problem is likely not easy to overcome in a penal environment, but awareness and education among prison staff, as well as proper medical intervention, would seem to be the best way to limit such tragedies.

It’s hard for me to say what led to all of these suicides, as every person’s situation is unique, and there is almost no coverage of these suicides in the media. However, inmate suicide seems to occur at a rate that is approximately twice the rate for Americans in general. See Wikipedia Chart  Frankly, I’m surprised the suicide rate isn’t much higher than it is. An inmate recently told me that there had been 2 suicides at his unit during the past year, and both involved inmates housed in administrative segregation. The isolation and lack of human interaction in ad seg can be debilitating, and it may push some people to lose all hope.

 Homicide

People often say that prison is a dangerous place. The conventional thinking used to be that inmates killing other inmates is a serious problem in Texas prisons. However, the recent data says otherwise, with the exception of 2012, a year in which 12 inmates were victims of homicide. In 2013, there were only 4 such cases, and in 2014 there was only 1 homicide. As of August 2015, there were just 2 such cases so far this calendar year. For some of the reasons noted above, I generally deplore the idea of using administrative segregation as a long term incarceration option. However, Texas prisons are undoubtedly safer overall because many of the most aggressive and dangerous inmates, including all confirmed members of prison gangs, are housed in the ad seg pods, where these people are much more limited in their ability to harm or kill other inmates.

Accidental Death

There’s good news in this area for Texas prisons. Inmates are not dying in accidents in very large numbers, and that is a pretty good indicator that TDCJ is doing most of what it can to make prisons as safe as possible. In 2013 and 2014, there were only 3 such deaths in each year. However, the 2015 number will be higher. As of August, 2015, there were 8 accidental deaths in 2015 thus far, and all of those are attributable to the deadly January bus crash near Odessa. Such accidents are prety rare, especially when you consider how many prison buses are in operation each day, all over the state of Texas.

TDCJ Bus Crash
Investigators On Scene Following TDCJ Bus Crash in January, 2015 Photo: Mark Sterkel, The Odessa American

“Natural” Death

By far, the highest percentage of deaths in TDCJ are labeled as “natural”. In 2013, there were 419 such cases, and there were 377 in 2014. Since death labeled “natural” accounts for about 90% of all deaths in prison, it’s important to understand how the word “natural” is being used. According to the TDCJ Emergency Action Center, the group that puts together these stats, “natural death” is defined as all deaths not classified as homicides, suicides, or accidental death.

I initially assumes the vast majority of deaths labeled “natural” occurred in a healthcare setting. It’s difficult to know for sure, but it’s really important to try to better understand all of this.

I’m told the TDCJ facility in Galveston is their largest hospital facility, and the second largest is the Carol Young facility in Dickinson, I checked the AG’s Custodial Death Report  and found that the two facilities combined for 119 deaths in 2013, 104 deaths in 2014, and 138 deaths so far in 2015. All of these deaths involved people incarcerated in TDCJ at the time of their deaths. Therefore, 119 out of the 419 “natural” deaths in 2013 occurred at one of these two hospitals, and accounted for 104 out of 377 in 2014.

UTMB-TDCJ-1
UTMB-Hospital Galveston, TDCJ’s 172 bed hospital

Putting It All Together

Executions carried out by the state, homicides, and deaths recorded as accidental all combine to account for only about 5 or 6 percent of the total number of deaths in TDCJ. Suicides account for another 7 percent, and the remaining 85 to 88 percent of the deaths are labeled as natural deaths by the TDCJ Emergency Action Center. However, of the nearly 400 such natural deaths that occurred in TDCJ, only about 100 to 130 per year appear to be happening in a hospital setting. The logical question, of course, is what’s happened in the other deaths, which far outnumber the ones in a hospital setting.

As a parole attorney, I am asked to maximize a  client’s odds to qualify for parole. In some cases, my efforts are based, at least in part, on their medical condition. If the medical situation is severe enough and well documented enough, the inmate might qualify for Medically Intensive Recommended Supervision .

The statistics above seem to indicate that a great many people are either not getting the benefit of the doubt when it comes to parole, based on the severity of their medical situation, or these conditions are not being documented well enough for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to notice it and respond accordingly. The Board may well have released some of those who died in TDCJ, if only they had known that the prisoner was not likely to  be alive much longer. It’s a question of humanity and of human dignity. The data seems to suggest we have more work to do if we are to realize the goal of allowing a prisoner to spend their final years in someplace other than a prison or a prison hospital.