As coronavirus cases in Texas rise, many advocates are calling for prison populations to be drastically reduced. And some counties are gradually responding to those calls.
A man in the Bexar County jail who presented with flu-like symptoms has since tested negative for the coronavirus. But, if he had tested positive, what would jail health administrators have done?
Theresa Scepanski is the chief administrative officer for University Health System, which oversees the Bexar County detention health care services.
“We would ask Metro Health and our pathology team for guidance on what we would do from there,” she said.
She says that unlike long-term prisons – where people are sent if convicted – there isn’t a “general population” in the jail. Inmates are held in one- or two-person cells within larger pods.
“There's not a whole lot of commingling,” she said. “But within one pod, we're going to probably have about 18 to 20 individuals, so those people would be quarantined and stay in their pods themselves. We'd have an elevated level of cleaning – things along those lines – but they would stay in isolation.”
University Health System officials have already implemented a screening procedure that takes into account the travel history and checks for flu-like symptoms of each inmate as they enter. The temperature of every visitor is checked before they enter, and non-essential visitation has been cut back.
Any inmate with a travel history to an affected area, or who has flu-like symptoms is put into isolation and given a mask. University Health System has no oversight in jail policy outside of healthcare.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards recently called for certain suspected non-violent offenders to be released.
The Harris County Sheriff told Houston’s NBC affiliate that no mass releases are planned, but that the jail population is down because of fewer arrests. Travis and Hays counties are also reducing arrests. Dallas County has not announced any change in policy.
Officials with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office said more than 140 mostly non-violent misdemeanor inmates have already been released. Sixty others who were convicted have been sent straight to prison ahead of schedule. That’s close to the percentage reduction seen in Los Angeles, where the county is taking similar measures.
But as of Thursday, more than 3,500 people remain in the Bexar County jail.
“A lot of those individuals are in jail on pretrial detention, meaning they have been charged with a crime but not convicted of a crime,” said Alex Birnel, advocacy manager for the non-partisan, non-profit organization MOVE Texas.
According to him, the very nature of prisons makes them more vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19. He said the inmates shouldn’t be forgotten just because they’ve been accused – and usually not convicted – of a crime.
“And the design of prisons being closely compacted, also the budget of prisons – oftentimes not having adequate sanitation, cleaning supplies, etc. – really make them powder kegs for the explosive spread of coronavirus,” he said.
MOVE Texas sent out a letter on Thursday calling for jail populations to be reduced in light of the spreading coronavirus, and they aren’t alone.
“COVID-19 requires a large-scale response from criminal legal system stakeholders. That means judges and prosecutors and sheriffs reduce incarceration and nonessential contact with the criminal legal system,” said Nick Hanson, a policy advocacy strategist with the ACLU of Texas.
“Right now, there are far too many people in the jails. And it's going to end up with many more people on ventilators, in hospitals than need to be,” he said. “It will mean that more people in the jail are sick themselves. And there may be some dire public health consequences to that.”
Bexar County Sheriff’s officials said they plan to release a detailed update on guidelines for early releases of inmates, and they’ve stopped arresting people for certain low-level offenses.
In the meantime, as community spread continues in San Antonio, thousands of inmates remain in close quarters, and staff and inmates continue flowing in and out of the facilities.