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COVID-19 strikes a Texas nursing home for prisoners

Eva Ruth Moravec
Jul 9 · 7 min read

By Eva Ruth Moravec and Margarita Bronshteyn

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The Rufus H. Duncan Unit in Diboll, Angelina County, Texas. Image from Google Earth.

One of the novel coronavirus’ favorite targets in America has been senior citizens who live with other senior citizens. The concentration of seniors with often fragile immune systems contributes to the group’s higher risk of death. The New York Times reports that more than 40% of all U.S. deaths related to COVID-19 are tied to nursing homes and assisted living facilities. In Texas, 35% of all COVID-19-related fatalities have taken place in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, according to KXAN.

Another popular target: incarcerated individuals, whose particular plight when it comes to battling the novel coronavirus has made plenty of headlines (The Intercept, Equal Justice Initiative, JAMA).

But combine these two extremely at-risk populations and you’ll get the Rufus H. Duncan Unit, a minimum-security lockup and one of Texas’ dedicated geriatric prisons, where the virus spread relentlessly last month. Over four weeks, the virus had infected 70% of inmates at the Duncan Unit and about one in three employees. Eleven men at the Duncan Unit died in June of COVID-19 complications, representing 12% of all COVID-19-related deaths in Texas prisons.

Jeremy Desel, TDCJ spokesman, cautioned that most of the positive tests have been for individuals who were asymptomatic, and were a result of mass testing. All individuals in the TDCJ system who were asymptomatic have been tested for the novel coronavirus once. A second round of mass testing is underway. Desel added that precautionary lockdowns — like the one imposed at the Duncan Unit for weeks — are in place to stop the spread of the virus.

Desel had not been aware of the concentration of fatalities at the Duncan Unit, but did not seem surprised by them, either.

“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,” Desel said.

In the overall TDCJ system, the Duncan Unit plays a tiny role, currently holding only 404 individuals — 2% of all geriatric (over 55) inmates in the TDCJ system, and 0.3% of all individuals incarcerated in state prisons.

Its population, though, is particularly susceptible to disease. In a 2018 employee publication, TDCJ 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.”

Texas’ prison population is skewing older, and around the time of the 2018 publication, TDCJ modified the Duncan Unit to address their increasing medical needs. According to TDCJ and InmateAid, the Duncan Unit is a minimum security facility that encompasses 25 acres in Angelina County. Men live in double-bunks, in which there are 40 wheelchair-accessible beds, and some work in the facility’s garden. But as the virus spread through the Duncan Unit, infecting dozens, no one in Angelina County government knew about the positive cases inside the prison, even as employees got sick and were asked to quarantine themselves and stay home from work. “That’s a state-run facility and they have not told us anything,” the Angelina County Emergency Coordinator told the Lufkin Daily News in June.

Duncan Unit population

The population at the Duncan Unit is truly “geriatric,” composed mostly of older men. Nearly all are over the age of 55, and about 27% are above the age of 70.

At the Duncan Unit and other geriatric facilities run by TDCJ, the prisoners exist at the crossroads of low-risk for reoffending and high-risk for death from COVID19.

In 1983, Travis Hirschi and Michael Gottfredson pioneered data-driven research looking at changes in crime rate across age. They gathered data on crimes committed by men and women in the US and UK and found the same trend — a spike in criminality between the ages of 12 and 25 followed by a steep decline until reaching near-zero numbers after the age of 55. Their work has been cited over 2500 times (Google Scholar) and the “age-crime curve” became a guidepost for assessing the likelihood of a returning citizen reoffending.

Among the 270 individuals at Duncan (two-thirds of the unit) who are parole-eligible: 208 have been parole-eligible for more than a year; 44 are serving sentences for third-degree felonies (such as drug possession and driving while intoxicated); 7 others have second-degree felony charges for drug possession; and 18 men have served their sentences entirely.

Of the Duncan Unit’s 11 men who died from COVID-19 all were over the age of 60, and 63% of them had been parole-eligible. One man set to be released in June: David Erasmo Garcia, 83, had done 25 years on a 30-year sentence for a murder in 1994 in Dimmit County. He died June 7, according to a statement the TDCJ released one week later.

Why are men who are eligible for parole still being held in Texas prisons? One potential reason is that units have been on lockdown and movement has been restricted, keeping individuals away from courses that are required for release on parole, as the Texas Tribune has reported. In the past two weeks, TDCJ resumed prison transfers, once again allowing individuals to transfer to other units to complete the programs required for their release (see: Austin-American Statesman).

“They did resume the programs, but it’s going to be a long ordeal,” said a woman who volunteers with the Texas Inmate Families Association. “A lot of these gentlemen are elderly and may not have any family left,” she said, adding that she has a son at the 1,400-inmate Pack Unit, another geriatric prison.

The volunteer, who did not want to be named, had just found out — by calling a hotline set up for families — that her son had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, joining thousands of others in the TDCJ system. As the Houston Chronicle reported, 18 men at the Pack Unit have died of COVID-19. Inmates there sued the state in March, claiming TDCJ was not properly protecting them from the novel coronavirus; in June, an appeals court tossed out a lower court’s ruling (see: Texas Tribune) that was favorable to the inmates, noting several changes that TDCJ had implemented.

Other jurisdictions, such as those in New York and Illinois, began releasing some of their incarcerated population in March after widespread outbreaks in their facilities. In both states, the age-crime curve informed their decision making for who 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 geriatric offenders in either state. Thus far, no publications suggest an increase in crime due to geriatric returning citizens.

UPDATE on June 14, 2020: Since we published, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced the deaths of three more men from the Rufus H. Duncan Unit. All three men were over the age of 70, were eligible for parole and died of COVID-19 during the month of June.

One man, Jose Faide Morones, 70, had completed his sentence but was denied parole in May of this year. The now 14 COVID-19-related deaths in the Duncan Unit comprise 15% of the 94 individuals who’ve died of COVID-19 in TDCJ facilities, according to the agency’s announcements.

The good news, according to TDCJ’s dashboard, is that nearly all of the men who’d tested positive for the novel coronavirus at the geriatric Duncan Unit have recovered. The latest data, from July 14, showed six active cases and 272 recoveries.

UPDATE on July 24, 2020: Two more deaths of individuals inside the Rufus H. Duncan Unit have now been reported, bringing the total to 16 deaths related to COVID-19 at the geriatric unit.

The 16 Duncan Unit deaths now represent 16% of the 102 individuals who’ve died of COVID-19 in Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities, according to the agency’s announcements. Among the recent deaths: 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.

Among those still at the Duncan Unit: 73% of the 374 incarcerated men and 32% of the 171 employees have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to the agency’s data. Nearly all of the individuals who have tested positive have recovered.

Eva Ruth Moravec is a freelance reporter and executive director of the Texas Justice Initiative in Austin.

Margarita Bronshteyn is a data scientist volunteer at the Texas Justice Initiative. She has a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and Psychology and a master’s degree in Neuroscience, and tutors in D.C. and Maryland jails through the Petey Greene Program.

Eva Ruth Moravec

Written by

Executive director of the Texas Justice Initiative, a nonprofit building a portal for criminal justice data in Texas; Austin-based reporter-for-hire

Eva Ruth Moravec

Written by

Executive director of the Texas Justice Initiative, a nonprofit building a portal for criminal justice data in Texas; Austin-based reporter-for-hire

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