Texas state prisons reported 50 inmate deaths in 2020. That was up from 36 in 2019, and around 40 in 2018. So far in 2021, the numbers are on track to exceed 50.
Keri Blakinger uncovered these numbers, and some of the stories behind them, for The Marshall Project. She says while it’s difficult to point to exactly what’s contributing to the rise, she can identify some potential reasons.
“One of the things that has come up again and again in the course of my reporting is people suggesting that the understaffing might be an issue here because you simply don’t have as many guards around to potentially intervene if someone is attempting to harm themselves,” Blakinger told Texas Standard. “So I think that’s one big thing, because Texas prisons are the most understaffed that they’ve been in any sort of recent memory – something like 5,700 positions free right now, which is, you know, which is extremely unusual.”
Those shortages can be blamed, in part, on the pandemic. And, she says, it’s not the only way the pandemic may be contributing to the increase in inmate suicides.
“Obviously, for all of us in the free world, it’s been a trying time, mental health-wise,” Blakinger said. “But for people in prison, the conditions have become pretty dire at times. You know, I’ve done some prior reporting on the meals that people were getting during these extensive lockdowns.”
Beyond that, she says the use of solitary confinement has gone up by about 500%.
Another issue is that Texas prisons aren’t air conditioned.
“People are, in some cases, just sort of baking in 100-plus-degree cells, living on, you know, sandwiches, and not getting out very often,” Blakinger said. “And that’s a trying set of conditions, especially if you add in existing mental health issues.”
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or TDCJ, told Blakinger that it’s aware of the issue and have had some senior-level task forces to try to address it.
“But some of the things, in fairness, are beyond their control, to some extent. I think the staffing problem is not something that TDCJ can solve on its own,” Blakinger said.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.