James Allen Smith was only supposed to be at a Texas prison for a matter of months, sentenced to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program after he pled guilty to a repeat DWI offense in January.
But in May, while in a Huntsville prison where Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials halted almost all movement as inmates and employees fell ill with the new coronavirus, the 73-year-old retired teacher from Bastrop also contracted the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. Instead of coming home to his family after completing a short program, Smith died in prison custody on June 11.
“We never thought this would happen,” Lani Davis, Smith’s 26-year-old granddaughter, told The Texas Tribune last week, shock still evident in her voice. “He was going to get out, he was being fine… He was only sentenced to six months.”
At least 84 Texas state prisoners have died after catching the new coronavirus, according to TDCJ reports. The death toll, which the agency’s leader called “unprecedented,” is the second highest among state prison systems. Those who have died include men serving life sentences, a man who was days away from his release date, and others, like Smith, who were only supposed to be locked up for a short time.
For months, advocates in Texas and across the country have pushed for the early release of some vulnerable prisoners — such as those with underlying health problems — as lockups became hotspots for the new coronavirus that has killed more than 2,600 people in the state. They argued that a smaller prison population would make it easier for inmates to socially distance and also better protect prison employees who can spread the virus to their families and communities.
But while some states have moved to release more parole-eligible prisoners or those nearing the end of their sentences, Texas practices have gone unchanged.
“The spread of COVID in the prison system has shown that a period of incarceration for a number of people has turned into a death sentence,” said Peter Steffensen, a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “That doesn’t change the fact that the parole board and the governor are both empowered to take a number of different steps that they could have and should have months ago.”