© 2020 Texas Public Radio
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Bexar County Justice System Endures COVID-19's Spread Among Deputies And Inmates

Eileen Pace | Texas Public Radio

As of mid-April, almost two dozen detention deputies, several civilian employees and almost a dozen inmates at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center have tested positive for COVID-19, according to county officials. It’s the latest turn in the story of how the pandemic has affected sheriff's deputies and the county jail’s inmate population, changed the jail's daily operations and reprioritized who stays behind bars and who does not.

At least 21 Bexar County Sheriff's deputies tested positive for COVID-19, according to officials on Friday. The deputies were assigned to the Detention Bureau and have been placed on leave.

The sheriff's administration is completing contact tracing for all positive COVID-19 tests within the office to determine where the source of the infection originally occurred. Jail deputies have to pass a regular fever check and are sent home if they don’t.

The illness has also infected other county employees at the jail, including a video visitation civilian employee, a dispatcher, a Facilities Maintenance employee and a University Health Systems nurse.

COVID-19 is also spreading among the inmates. Ten have tested positive, as of Thursday afternoon.

The sheriff’s department believed none of the cases were contracted in the jail itself.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff has worried the numbers would continue to grow among the jail’s population, which he estimated to be around 3,000 inmates.

“We’re beginning to see the spread in the jail, and I don’t think it’s going to stop where it is, so we’re constantly stepping up to try to do more to stem the tide of COVID cases within the jail,” Wolff said at a press conference.

Additional steps have been taken to slow the spread. The judge said every incoming inmate was now screened, isolated for 14 days and monitored to see if they developed the illness.

But the new steps didn’t end there.

“We’re developing a COVID pod, which is ready if COVID is spread,” Wolff said. “We’re taking magistration and making it remote. We’re limiting recreation. We’re getting everybody to wear masks — inmates and workers. But we need more of them, and we requested for them. We are cleaning cells everyday. We’re limiting access to the jail.”

The health of current inmates is monitored daily, including fever checks. Nevertheless, Wolff said stopping the spread in the jail is complicated by the communal living of inmates in pods.

County officials said the district attorney’s office, the courts and law enforcement are trying to keep the jail population down by releasing some inmates early for good behavior, monitoring others by GPS and making fewer arrests for minor offenses.

But the process is not running smoothly. Sheriff Javier Salazar said the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is forcing the county jail population to grow again by not picking up inmates who have been sentenced to serve time in a state prison.

“The TDC has stopped picking up inmates from local jails," he explained on Wednesday, "and as a result of that I am sitting on 177... what we call 'paper ready inmates.' These people have been convicted. They’ve been sentenced to jail, and the prison system is not picking them up.”

The outbreak has also changed the arrangements for how inmates remained connected to the outside world.

For example, a new remote video visitation system is now operational. Friends and family of those incarcerated can schedule a remote video visit 72 hours in advance from a webcam equipped computer that has Windows 10 software or newer, or from any Android device. At this time, iOS devices, including Apple iPhones, are not compatible. All rules and terms enforced by video visitation still apply.

Also, inmates will continue to be afforded two free 15-minute phone calls a week, in addition to being provided two 20-minute video visits a week, until further notice.

The jail is just one element of the larger county justice system, which has also adpated to the coronavirus crisis.

On Wednesday, Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales said that system continued to function properly despite social distancing.

He said 80% of staffers in the county prosecutor’s office are working from home because many court functions can be handled by phone or online.

Gonzales explained that law enforcement is working with his office and the courts to make major criminal arrests, and they only issue tickets in minor cases where possible — a policy called “cite and release.”

“By statute that only applies to certain category of offenses," he said. "For example, possession of marijuana, misdemeanor marjuana offices, certain theft offenses. So it’s not for every crime.”

He said county and state district judges handled cases remotely or took turns presiding over cases in each other’s courts. Gonzales said anyone with legal business at the courthouse should call first.

Brian Kirkpatrick can be reached at Brian@TPR.org and on Twitter at @TPRBrian.
Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.
Steve Short can be reached at Steve@TPR.org.

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.