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University of TX, Dead Man Waiting - Profile of Deaths in TX Prisons Among People Approved for Parole Release, 2021

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COVID, Corrections,
and Oversight Project
~~,

June 2021

DEAD MAN WAITING:
A brief profile of deaths in Texas prisons among people approved for parole release
Michele Deitch, Destiny Moreno, and Alycia Welch

Introduction
There are more than 10,700 people in Texas
prisons who have been approved for release on
parole but remain in custody.1 This number
represents nearly one-tenth of the entire Texas
prison population. Despite being approved for
parole, some of these people will never walk out
the prison gates because they die while waiting for
release.
A substantial period of delay between parole
approval and parole release is built into the
current design of the Texas parole system. When
the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP)
decides to approve someone for release on
parole, it can do so pending completion of inprison programming, which is intended to prepare
someone for reentry. However, these programs
are not available to parole-eligible people until
they receive approval from the BPP.2 The Texas
Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) assigns
parole-approved people to board-required
programming only when there is a spot available
for them. As a result, people can remain in prison
post-parole approval for a year or more while
waiting to begin or complete programming.3 This
timeline,
combined with
Parole-eligible: the earliest
persistent
someone can be considered
program delays
for parole approval
and placement
Parole-approved: approved
waitlists, means
for re lease pending a date
that people are
reached or requirement
waiting in prison
completed
for long periods
of time after they
Parole-released: serving the
have been
remainder of a sentence under
approved for
supervision in the community
release.
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-21 exacerbated
those delays, due to suspension of in-person
programs and restricted transfers between

facilities, including transfers to the facilities
where certain pre-release programs are
provided.4
In November 2020, we co-authored a report
that found that nine individuals had died from
COVID in the period between parole approval
and their projected release date.5 This finding
raised questions for us about whether this was a
pandemic peculiarity or a broader
phenomenon of people dying in Texas prisons
while they await the completion of
programming that enables their release on
parole. This research brief answers those
questions in a first-of-its-kind analysis.

Methodology
Using cross-referenced data from various
publicly available sources, including parole
approval decisions reported by TDCJ in their
high value data sets from March 2020 to March
2021,6 deaths in custody reports compiled by
the Texas Justice Initiative, and data from
Custodial Death Reports available on the Office
of the Texas Attorney General’s website, we
identified all parole-approved individuals who
died in prison while waiting for release between
March 2020 and March 2021.
We also calculated the amount of time people
remain in TDCJ custody after being paroleapproved for every month in which data was
available.7 While the data indicates individual
parole approval dates, it does not provide
specific release dates for each individual.
Therefore, we used the first day of the first
month that an individual no longer appeared in
a data set as a proxy for their release date to
calculate the length of time people remain in
TDCJ custody after their approval date.8 This
provides a conservative approximation of the
“wait” people experience after approval for
release; actual delays are likely somewhat
longer.

Dead Man Waiting:
A Profile of Deaths in Texas Prisons Among People Approved for Parole Release

1

To determine whether deaths following parole
approval were solely related to COVID and to
provide a basis for comparison, we duplicated our
analysis for the full calendar year prior to the
pandemic, January 2019-January 2020.9

Research Findings
(1) How long do parole-approved people

typically wait for parole release?

In any given month before COVID, people
remained in Texas prisons for an average of 3 to 4
months after their parole approval before they
were released. During the COVID pandemic, the
typical delay in release ranged from 5 to 11
months; the overall average was 6 months.
(2) How many parole-approved people died

while awaiting parole release during the
COVID pandemic?

Between March 2020, when TDCJ locked down its
facilities due to COVID, and March 2021, at least

42 people who were approved for release on
parole died in Texas prisons.
These are people who BPP
determined are safe enough
to be released by a certain
date or pending the
completion of a required
program. They met some of
the nation’s most burdensome
standards for parole approval
and yet they still died behind
bars while awaiting their release. 10

42 paroleapproved
people died in
2020-21
compared to
26 in 2019-20

(3) Are these deaths a recent phenomenon
due to COVID?

We identified at least 26 parole-approved
people who died while waiting for release
between 2019 and 2020, confirming that
deaths during the period between parole
approval and parole release are not unique to
the COVID era.11 Figure 1 shows the deaths of
parole-approved individuals in 2019-20 and in
2020-21, and distinguishes COVID-related
deaths from other deaths.

Figure 1: Comparing Total Numbers of Deaths of Parole-Approved Individuals in
Texas Before and During the COVI D Pandemic
Jan 2019-Jan 2020 vs. Mar 2020-Mar 2021

does not
account for the
high number of
deaths of

Dead Man Waiting.
A Profile of Deaths ,n Texas Prisons Among People Approved for Parole Release

2

As Figure 1 above indicates, COVID-19
contributed to a significantly higher number of
deaths among parole-approved people in
2020-21 than in the previous calendar year.
However, the number of non-COVID-related
deaths in 2020-21 (24 in total) is consistent with
the number of deaths in custody in 2019-20,
before the pandemic (at least 26 in total). This
means that the issue of parole-approved
people dying while waiting to be released is
not unique to the COVID crisis.

The problem of parole-approved
people dying while waiting to
be released is not simply a
COVID-related phenomenon.

old in 2019-20 compared to 61 in 2020-21).
People who died during the COVID period ranged
from 35 years old to 88, while in the prior year,
they ranged from 42 to 87.
The vast majority of people who died were men.
Only four women died over the two-year span, two
per year.
Racial breakdowns in both periods also follow
similar patterns. In 2019-20, 38% of people who
died were Black, another 38% were White, and
23% were Hispanic. In 2020-21, 41% of people
who died were White, 33% were Black, and 26%
were Hispanic.12

(5) What were the causes of death?

(4) What are the demographics of the people
who died while awaiting parole release?
We discovered similar demographic trends
among parole-approved people who died in
custody before and during the pandemic.
The average age at time of death is nearly
identical during the two time periods (60 years

COVID-19 was singularly responsible for the most
deaths in 2020-21. But after COVID, the leading
causes of deaths in Texas prisons among paroleapproved people before and during the pandemic
involved chronic health issues. The most common
chronic conditions leading to death are cancer—
often liver and lung—and heart conditions or other
diseases. Notably, there was one known suicide
each year. Figure 2 below lists all causes of death
ranked by the frequency of occurrence, and the
total number of people that died from each cause,
as noted in their custodial death report.13

Figure 2: Causes of Death Among Parole-Approved Individuals in Texas Prisons
Jan 2019-Jan 2020 vs. Mar 2020- Mar 2021

chronic health
issues are the
leading causes of
deaths before

.. .
••

..

'

TEXAS

LBJ School

Hepatitis C- 4

Cancer- 5

Liver disease- 2

Homicide- 1

Sepsis- 2

Hypoxic brain injury- 1

Necrotizing bronchopneumonia- 1

Prosthetic joint infection- 1

Cancer treatment- 1

Pulmonary edema- 1

Gastrointestinal hemorrhage- 1

Respiratory failure- 1

Pneumonia- 1

Seizure disorder- 1

Sickle cell disease- 1

Sepsis- 1

Suicide- 1

Suicide- 1

COVID, Corrections,

...

and Oversight Project

Source: Texas J ustice Initiative and Texas Office of the Attorney General

Dead Man Waiting.
A Profile of Deaths ,n Texas Prisons Among People Approved for Parole Release

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As Figure 2 indicates, all but one person in 201920 died from illness or natural causes. One person
died by suicide after hanging himself with a towel
inside a shower stall. In 2020-21, most people died
from illness or natural causes, including 18 from
COVID-related complications. One man’s death
was ruled a homicide from blunt force trauma
sustained during an altercation with another
person in custody. Another man died by suicide
after hanging himself with a shoelace.

(6) How much time had these individuals served
on their sentences?
About 68% of parole-approved people who died
in 2020-21 served at least half of their sentence,
including 5 people who served their entire
sentence or more.14 Similarly, in the year prior
(2019-20), 54% of people served at least half of
their sentence, with 2 people having served their
entire sentence by the time of death.

(7)

How long had these individuals been
waiting after they were approved for
parole prior to their deaths?

The most striking difference between deaths in
2019-20 and deaths in 2020-21 is that the
average time between parole approval and
death in custody jumped during the pandemic.
The average number of months between
approval and death was 9 months during
COVID, compared to 6 months the year prior.
The COVID-related delays therefore accounted
for a 50% increase in waiting time, making it
ever more possible that a person could be
exposed to COVID or have a chronic health
condition worsen during that period.
Figure 3 below compares the wait times—the
number of months people waited for release
before dying in custody—for each year of our
analysis.

Figure 3: Comparing Wait Times of Parole-Approved Individuals in Texas
Jan 2019-Jan 2020 vs. March 2020-March 2021

The average time
between parole
approval and death
in prison jumped
by 3 months in the
pandemic
compared to the
year prior.

We found that more people are waiting longer
during the COVID crisis. As shown in Figure 3,
most people in both periods of our analysis
were waiting for release on parole between
three months and one year in prison before
dying, but more people in 2020-21 are waiting
longer.

(8) What accounts for the delays in release
following parole approval?
According to the most recent statistical report from
the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP),
more than half (60%) of people approved for
release on parole must complete programming as

Dead Man Waiting.
A Profile of Deaths ,n Texas Prisons Among People Approved for Parole Release

4

a condition for release.15 Programming often
involves substance use treatment or sex
offender education and can last anywhere from
3 to 18 months. TDCJ oversees the provision of
programming at its facilities. Texas statute
allows BPP to set these conditions but does not
mandate their timely provision.16
During the COVID pandemic, participation in
pre-release programs was delayed because
many programs were suspended and transfers
between prison units were not allowed.
Eventually, TDCJ allowed people to complete
pre-release programming through telephone,
video-conference, and paper packets,17 which
reduced the extent of the delays. Despite that
policy shift, the lag time between parole
approval and release continued to be
substantial and the Texas parole system
continues to impose significant—and even
deadly—costs on its incarcerated population.

Discussion
The data reveals that a large number of people
die in Texas prisons each year even though the
Parole Board had already determined that
these individuals were worthy of parole and no
longer presented a risk to public safety. At least
68 people have died over the last two years.
While COVID has dramatically exacerbated this
problem, the data also tells us that this
phenomenon is not unique to the pandemic
era.
There is a structural problem with the design of
the parole process in Texas that is a
contributing factor in these deaths insofar as
there is a lengthy delay between parole
approval and parole release. That delay is due,
in part, to offering pre-release programming
only after a person has been approved for
parole.
The data also revealed a large number of
people with very serious and often fatal health
conditions, such as cancer and heart disease,
who die of these diseases in the period
between parole approval and release. Rather
than allowing these individuals the dignity to
spend their remaining days in freedom or the
ability to access medical care in the community,
BPP and TDCJ force them to spend their final

days in prison awaiting programs they will likely
never need.
Beyond this human toll is a financial one.
Incarcerating people after they are approved for
parole is an expensive practice—according to the
state’s most recent calculations, incarcerating
someone in Texas prisons costs $69.27 per day.18
This means that, currently, Texans spend a total of
$744,722 per day waiting for 10,751 paroleapproved individuals to be released.19 Given the
average 3 to 4 months between parole approval
and parole release in a nonCOVID year, this quickly adds
up to an average cost of $6,234
Texans spend
- $8,312 per person. Due to
almost $750,000
increased delays during the
per day waiting
pandemic, which led to
for paroleaverages ranging from 5 to 11
approved people
months, those costs soared
to be released
even higher, to an average of
$10,391-$22,859 per person.
Providing medical care to people in custody is also
expensive, especially for people with the kinds of
chronic conditions that caused a high proportion
of the deaths highlighted in this report. In 2015,
the average cost of receiving medical care in Texas
prisons was between $96 and $104 per person per
day.20 Those costs are substantially higher for
TDCJ’s aging population, who disproportionately
have conditions such as Hepatitis C and cancer. 21
Keeping individuals with these chronic conditions
incarcerated drives up the agency’s medical costs,
and diverts funding from other correctional
priorities.
Our findings lend support for modifying Texas’
parole process and offering all board-required
programs at the front end of a person’s
incarceration.22 By reducing the amount of time
parole-approved people wait for release, Texas
can substantially reduce its incarcerated
population, save taxpayer money, and prevent
future deaths in custody.
Moreover, people with chronic illnesses, including
those living with mental health challenges, can
benefit from treatment and services beyond what
can be offered in prisons, and those with fatal
conditions can spend their final days with their
families. Prison is an especially difficult place to be
when a person is facing physical and mental health
challenges, and conditions inside the facilities,

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compounded by frustration by the delay in
release, can contribute to a person’s stress and
adverse health outcomes.

Recommendations

someone is in TDCJ custody. This bill was also not
heard in the Senate despite passing out of the
House. Both of these bills offer a good starting
place for future legislation.
(2) Offer community-based rehabilitative
programming to people approved for parole

(1) Front-load rehabilitative programming in
prison

TDCJ should offer rehabilitative programming
at the front end of a person’s stay in prison,
rather than after their parole approval. Under
current law, BPP has until the 180th day after an
individual's admission into TDCJ custody to
identify any programs that may be necessary for
their release on parole.23 TDCJ must make
reasonable efforts to provide individuals an
opportunity to complete these programs in a
timely manner so that their release on parole is
not delayed. However, the same timeliness
requirement does not apply to the programs
BPP requires parole-approved people
complete before their release.24 Making all
programs available at an earlier stage in the
incarceration process—specifically, before an
individual’s parole eligibility date, and possibly
even at the start of their incarceration—would
ensure that a person approved for parole can
be released almost immediately, saving lives
and saving taxpayer money.25
Moreover, early access to rehabilitative
programming can have a positive impact on a
person’s behavior while incarcerated, reducing
the likelihood of misconduct and disciplinary
violations. The Parole Board may also be more
inclined to approve a person for release if the
person can show that their needs have been
addressed. Texas law requires the Board to
consider individuals' progress in any kind of
programming when deciding to grant parole.26
During the 87th Legislative Session, Rep. Jarvis
Johnson filed H.B. 2793 that would have
required TDCJ to accelerate the availability of
parole programming, consistent with this
recommendation. Although the bill passed out
of the House with strong support, the legislative
clock ran out before it could be heard in the
Senate. H.B. 2742, filed by Rep. Ron Reynolds,
would have required reentry and reintegration
programs to begin as soon as practicable once

Individuals who have already been approved for
parole subject to completion of programming
should be offered the opportunity to access those
programs in the community under parole
supervision. These programs already exist for the
benefit of probationers and can be expanded to
cover parolees at a fraction of the cost of keeping
these individuals in prison for additional months
on end.
Especially given the fact that many in-prison prerelease programs were reduced to little more than
pen-and-paper worksheets during the pandemic,27
it is hard to see what benefit comes from requiring
people to remain in prison to participate in such
programming. Community-based programs, or
even online programs that the person can
participate in while remaining homebound, offer a
range of better alternatives.
(3) Offer immediate release to parole-approved
individuals with serious health conditions

For people faced with serious chronic health
problems such as cancer and heart conditions,
parole release should not be delayed for the sake
of programming. These individuals should be
prioritized for community-based programming
upon release, if those programs are necessary at
all. The objective should be to ensure that these
individuals can spend their final days with families
and loved ones and can access any necessary
medical care in the community.

Conclusion
For far too many people, Texas’s approach to
rehabilitative programming in prison results in an
unintended death sentence. People who have
been determined by the Parole Board to be safe
for release remain in prison to complete programs
that could have been provided to them at a much
earlier stage of their incarceration. While waiting to
complete these programs, people die of chronic

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medical conditions, COVID, suicide, and even
homicide. But most of these deaths did not
need to occur in prison, if at all.
Experts have long contended that re-entry
starts on the day of admission to prison. But in
Texas, the re-entry process starts once a person
is approved for parole. That process needs to
be changed, to promote more effective reentry, to save money, and most of all, to save
lives.

Michele Deitch, J.D., M.Sc., is a Distinguished
Senior Lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs
and Director of the COVID, Corrections, and
Oversight Project. Destiny Moreno is a M.P.Aff.
student at the LBJ School and a researcher with
the COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project.
Alycia Welch, M.P.Aff., M.S.S.W, is Associate
Director of the COVID, Corrections, and Oversight
Project.
This report was produced with the generous
support of Arnold Ventures. However, the views
expressed herein are the authors’ alone and do
not represent the opinions or positions of Arnold
Ventures, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public
Affairs, or the University of Texas at Austin.
Please direct any inquiries to Michele Deitch at
Michele.Deitch@austin.utexas.edu.

1

Texas Department of Criminal Justice (April 2021). “Inside TDCJ,” High-Value Data Set, accessed (May 27, 2021),
https://www.tdcj.texas.gov/kss_inside.html. TDCJ’s April 2021 High-Value Data Set was the most recent data set available at the
time of our analysis.
2

Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (2021). "Safely Adjust Parole Practices to Reduce Massive Prison Budgets,"
https://www.texascjc.org/spend-your-values/safely-adjust-parole-practices-reduce-massive-prison-budgets.
3

Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, “Parole / Mandatory Supervision Information,” accessed (April 28, 2021),
https://www.tdcj.texas.gov/bpp/what_is_parole/vote-options.html.
4

Jolie McCullough (July 23, 2020). “The coronavirus is keeping Texas prisoners who've been approved for parole behind bars,”
Texas Tribune, https://www.texastribune.org/2020/07/23/texas-prisons-coronavirus-parole/.
5

Michele Deitch, Alycia Welch, William Bucknall, and Destiny Moreno (November 2020). “COVID and Corrections: A Profile of
COVID Deaths in Custody in Texas,” Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin,
https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/83635.
6

TDCJ publishes high value data sets on a monthly basis but does not archive any of them on their website. Our team has been
collecting these data sets on a semi-regular basis. We did not have access to TDCJ’s April, May, and August 2020 High Value Data
Sets (which may not have ever been published), so our analysis may overlook certain individuals, resulting in a likely undercount of
total deaths in 2020-21.
7

We have data for the following months in this time period: March, June, July, September, October, November, and December
2020; January, February, and March 2021.
8

The data sets provide a snapshot of the TDCJ population on the last day of the month, so if the individual does not appear in the
following month’s data set, we made a calculation as if that person was released on the following day, although they could have
been released at any point during that next month.
9

We have data for the following months for the 2019-2020 period: December 2018; January, June, July, August, and October
2019. We used the December 2018 data set to identify people who were not included in the January 2019 data set because they
died in January 2019.
10

Jorge Renaud (2019). "Grading the parole release systems of all 50 states," Prison Policy Initiative,
https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/grading_parole.html. In this national audit of parole systems, PPI gave Texas an "F" grade

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for its stringent parole review process. Texas lost points due to its presumptive parole policies, subjective reasons for parole
denial, lack of staff assistance for parole applicants, and lack of a vehicle for parole applicants to challenge incorrect information.
Only 12 other states received fewer points than Texas.
11

The 2019-20 death count is a more conservative count than the 2020-21 count as we had access only to TDCJ High Value
Datasets from December 2018, January, June, July, August, and October 2019 to identify parole approval dates for people who
died in 2019-20.
12

As a basis for comparison, the racial breakdown among the general prison population in 2019-20 was 34% White, 33%
Hispanic, and 33% Black. The parole-approved population’s racial breakdown that year was 39% White, 32% Hispanic, and 28%
Black. During 2020-21, the racial breakdown among the general prison population during the pandemic year was virtually the
same as the prior year, with an equal distribution of White, Black, and Hispanic people at 33% each. The parole-approved
population during this time frame was 36% White, 34% Hispanic, and 29% Black.
13

This table does not include three people who died in 2020-21 whose cause of death is still unknown.

14

Note that the time served on a sentence is based only on the offense of record, as recorded in the high value data sets. A
person may also be serving a separate sentence on another charge, but we do not have access to that sentence to incorporate
into our time-served calculation.
15

Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, (2020). "Annual Statistical Report FY 2019,"
https://www.tdcj.texas.gov/bpp/publications/FY_2019_Annual_Statistical_Report.pdf.
16

Texas law does not mandate programming as a condition for release, but Sec. 508.152(c) of the Texas Government Code
requires BPP to identify and provide information on any classes or programs the Board intends to require an individual to take
before release on parole.
17

Texas Legislative Budget Board (January 2021). “Criminal and Juvenile Justice Uniform Cost Report FY 2019 and 2020,”
https://www.lbb.state.tx.us/Documents/Publications/Policy_Report/6292_CJDA_Uniform_Cost.pdf.
18

Texas Legislative Budget Board (January 2021). ”Criminal and Juvenile Justice Uniform Cost Report,"
https://www.lbb.state.tx.us/Documents/Publications/Policy_Report/6292_CJDA_Uniform_Cost.pdf.
19

This figure was calculated using parole approvals from TDCJ’s April 2021 High Value Data Set and the Texas Legislative Budget
Board’s formula for calculating costs per day per person.
20

Hogg Foundation for Mental Health (2016). "Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Local Criminal Justice Agencies," The
University of Texas at Austin, https://hogg.utexas.edu/project/texas-department-of-criminal-justice-and-local-criminal-justiceagencies.
21

Davis Rich (November 2019). "Prison health care costs are higher than ever in Texas. Many point to an aging prison population,"
Texas Tribune, https://www.texastribune.org/2019/11/25/texas-prison-health-care-budget-parole/.
22

Bipartisan support for reforms that address Texas’ cumbersome parole process has grown in recent years. Grits for Breakfast
(June 24, 2019). "Why revocations from probation and parole make up nearly half of Texas prison admissions and what to do
about it," https://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com/2019/06/why-revocations-from-probation-and.html.
23

Texas Government Code, Sec. 508.152 (c).

24

Texas Government Code, Sec. 508.152 (b-2).

25

It was beyond the scope of this project to examine other states’ practices, but we note that at least some other states offer
programming to people at an earlier point in their incarceration. In New York, programming for parole is available to individuals
at the start of their prison term. In Washington, programming can be accessed at any point in the incarceration process, and in
Pennsylvania, people can access programming at a point prior to parole approval.
26

Texas Government Code, Sec. 508.144(a)(3).

27

Advocates point to the move as evidence that pre-release programming can be completed outside both a strict timeline and a
correctional facility. See Michael Barajas (June 9, 2020). "COVID-19 has delayed programs that Texas prisoners need to get out,"
Texas Observer, https://www.texasobserver.org/parole-texas-prisons-covid-19/.

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