At the Crossroads of Risk Factors

How the Duncan Unit Became a Hotbed for COVID19

At the Crossroads of Risk Factors

In June of 2020, the executive director of the Texas Justice Initiative, Eva Ruth Moravec, started noticing a disturbing trend in the custodial death data - an alarming number of Texas Department of Criminal Justice's announcements about deaths by COVID-19 were coming from the same unit. In fact, of the 48 incarcerated individuals who died from COVID-19 in state-operated prisons and jails in June 2020, 14 were from the Duncan Unit. To put this another way: a unit that housed 0.3% of the state's prison population was suddenly reporting nearly 30% of the COVID-19 deaths that month. Together with Margarita Bronshteyn, one of TJI’s data scientists, Eva Ruth set out to understand what was driving this mortality rate and to shed light on those who died behind bars due to the pandemic, not a life sentence.

The Rufus H. Duncan Unit is a minimum-security lockup and one of Texas’ dedicated geriatric prisons. In June, the Duncan Unit housed just over 400 inmates - nearly all of whom were 55 years old or older. For many of those housed in the Duncan Unit, the intersection of incarceration and older age (often coupled with pre-existing conditions) proved to be one of many factors that put them particularly at-risk when it came to contracting and getting seriously ill from COVID-19. In just four weeks, the virus had infected 70% of the Duncan Unit's inmate population and one-third of its employees. As the summer wore on, TDCJ changed the way it reported data and TJI was unable to tell the total percentage of people who'd been infected at a particular unit.

Jeremy Desel, a TDCJ spokesman, stressed that the high positivity rate stemmed from the frequency and large scale effort when it came to testing those incarcerated in Duncan Unit. When asked about the mortality rate in particular, Desel said:

“If you look at our offender deaths — and actually, to be completely honest, our staff and offender deaths — if you look at them, across the board, there are very, very few that are not higher-risk folks, in that they have pre-existing conditions and/or are older. So you’re going to see, I think, a higher number of those instances in the older population units like Duncan.”

This past year was not the first time that the vulnerability of older, incarcerated individuals has come to light. A 2018 TDCJ employee publication reported that individuals 55 and older access in-prison health care five times more frequently than the rest of the incarcerated population. The article quoted Dr. Lannette Linthicum, director of TDCJ’s Health Services Division: “If they’re 55, they usually have the physiology of a 65-year-old, due to things such as lack of preventive health care, and behaviors such as alcohol and IV drug abuse.”

However, as people age, they also become far less likely to offend. Developed nearly four decades ago by Travis Hirschi and Michael Gottfredson, the “age-crime curve” has been a guidepost for assessing the likelihood of a returning citizen reoffending. Hirschi and Gottfreson found that, regardless of the person’ sex, criminality spikes between the ages of 12 and 25 after which there is a steep decline until reaching near-zero numbers by the age of 55. According to this model, the overwhelming majority of those incarcerated in the Duncan Unit would pose little to no risk to society upon release.

In fact, more than two-thirds of the Duncan Unit was parole eligible as of July 2020 and most of them (208 of 270) had been parole eligible for more than a year. Of the 21 men who died after contracting COVID while serving time in the Duncan Unit, 13 had served at least half their sentence, 17 were eligible for parole, and all were over the age of 60. Among these men were Jose Faide Morones, 70, who had completed his sentence but was denied parole in May of this year; and Jimmy Ray Price, 82, who’d served 24 years on a 25-year sentence and had been eligible for parole for 11 years, but was denied parole last spring.

So why were parole-eligible individuals not being released? According to Desel, additional measures, such as weeks-long precautionary lockdowns, were used to stop the spread of the virus and these lockdowns meant that everything came to a grinding halt. Movement was restricted and individuals were kept away from courses that are required for release on parole. Although TDCJ did resume the classes in late June, it has been a slow process. “[I]t’s going to be a long ordeal,” a woman who volunteers with the Texas Inmate Families Association told TJI. “A lot of these gentlemen are elderly and may not have any family left.”

Facilities in other states like New York and Illinois began releasing some of their incarcerated population in March after experiencing widespread outbreaks. In both states, the age-crime curve informed their decisions regarding whom to release. While New York prioritized releasing offenders over the age of 50 and Illinois prioritized those over 60, both states heavily weighed the presence of pre-existing conditions when reviewing cases for early-release. In both states, most releases have been the equivalent of 3rd-degree felonies or lower (see: Illinois’s IDOC spreadsheet for the full list of COVID-related releases). Researchers and reporters are no doubt watching to see if there are any spikes in crime associated with the release of offenders in either state – thus far, no publications suggest so.