The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office is trying to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the county jail. Temperature checks, new medical facilities, policy changes and even a new partnership with a civil rights group are some of the many ways the jail has confronted the growing problem.
The outbreak has posed deadly challenges to jails throughout the state, and Bexar County officials said they hope their solutions will sufficiently protect their inmates and their staff until this particular crisis has passed.
Jails pose a significant challenge during the coronavirus era because they are places with limited space, where inmates are often closely confined, so observing social distancing — the highest mitigation factor — is incredibly difficult.
Despite the jail’s several efforts to evolve its policies to reflect the demands of the crisis, new cases have arisen every few days.
Dozens of inmates have tested positive, and Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar expected more cases in the coming days.
“We’re on the mend. I mean, understand that there's probably going to be more deputies and inmates testing positive over the course of the next couple of weeks, but hopefully, at some point, we'll be getting more back on a daily basis than what’s checking out,” he said.
Health authorities believe the overall coronavirus peak for San Antonio and Bexar County will occur around mid-May. By late April, there were around 1,200 confirmed cases in the county.
By late April, almost three dozen deputies at the jail tested positive for the virus. A variety of other workers also tested positive, including a video visitation employee, a dispatcher, and University Health System workers, among others.
The first positive case
The coronavirus crisis consumed San Antonio and Bexar County in early spring of 2020, and the jail’s community did not escape that swift spread.
While it’s not clear how the virus entered the jail, the facility’s very first case was an employee.
“We've all got our theories,” Salazar explained. “Our first civilian employee... tested positive on the 19th of March, as far as we can tell.”
That individual was a staff member of the video visitation unit. Salazar said the person’s relatives believed he may have contracted it at the jail’s video visitation site, however, some external factors may have been at play.
“He had just come back from a cruise that went right through New Orleans,” Salazar said. “So, your guess is as good as mine where he got it from. We had a deputy that came up positive. We're not 100% sure how he got it. Some of the other deputies that initially came up, we believe (that) may have been travel related.”
The first inmate to test positive reported feeling shortness of breath on April 9. A BCSO statement from April 10 offered more details: “Upon further medical evaluation it was determined that the inmate had a fever over 100 (degrees). Due to the inmate displaying symptoms consistent with COVID-19, the inmate was tested and placed in a negative pressure cell, pending lab results.”
The results returned positive, the statement added. At that point, two living units were placed on lockdown.
Inmates now have limited movement within the jail. Salazar described it as being sequestered.
“By standards, we have to let them come out into the recreation apart (and) into the common area... once a day,” Salazar said. “We want to make sure that… they're able to come out and get some exercise. Now, if they're out in the public, in the common area, they are going to be wearing that mask 100% of the time.”
Parts of the jail have been cleared and when possible inmates are kept apart in spaces that allow it. Salazar added that any new inmates that enter the jail will automatically go into quarantine for at least two weeks for the safety of the jail population.
“Somebody coming off the street — we don't know where they've been. We don't know what they've been exposed to. We do know that the jail environment is… relatively safe,” he said. “And to me, I think it's relatively fragile. When you've been behind closed doors for six to eight months, your immune system's not what he used to be. We've got the new inmates, the new booking. We keep them separate before putting them into the general population.”
Out of the dozens of positive inmates, about a dozen were in a recovery unit. That means that they tested positive but no longer displayed symptoms. Salazar said if they continued to be symptom-free they would return to the general population.
At least two inmates have been taken to the hospital. The remaining inmates who tested positive were isolated.
“The other ones will be in the infirmary in individual cells,” he explained. “And some of them, probably the more severe of those will be in negative pressure cells we have. Next, we have four negative pressure cells within the infirmary area.”
The sheriff’s office reported on Thursday that about a dozen of the deputies who tested positive made a complete recovery.
More masks and new bed spaces
Bexar County also expanded the number of infirmary beds in the jail. After more than 800 inmates were released, parts of the jail were shuttered. However, some of those spaces would now be reused to give inmates more space and increase the infirmary capacity.
Salazar said the new beds would be ready soon.
During a press conference earlier this month, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff detailed that expansion.
“One of them is a new infirmary in the South Tower with 64 beds that we’ll use for non-positive patients. We’re working on another in the East Tower for 48 beds for positive patients,” he said.
Wolff added that a shipment of 52,000 masks for inmates had arrived for inmates, and more were expected to arrive later in the week.
The sheriff’s office said it was also checking inmates’ temperatures twice a day.
“(University Health System has) been really, really good. Very proactive, very forward on this process,” Salazar said. “I’ve got to be honest… their proactive stance along with ours is part of the reason we're not having quite the problem that other counties in Texas are having. You look at Harris County, and they're in a world of hurt right now. They've got a whole lot more. Then we have a little bigger jail population as well. But they're really getting hurt. They're really getting hit hard.”
The Harris County jail has about 7,000 inmates, and around 99 have tested positive. About 150 Harris County Sheriff’s office employees have also tested positive. About 368 deputies, detention officers and support staff have been quarantined for possible COVID-19 exposure.
‘We are miserable in here’
Salazar and Wolff contend that their administrations are dealing with the coronavirus in a variety of ways.
But Jason Shader disputes that. In two letters he sent to Texas Public Radio, Shader, an inmate in the Alpha Foxtrot unit, said he felt that he and the other inmates in his unit were treated like animals.
Shader’s attorney, Gary Churak, said he and Shader spoke over the phone this week. While most of the conversation focused on his case, Churak said Shader commented about conditions he was experiencing.
“He just basically said, ‘It’s bad in here, the sanitation is bad, they’re not feeding us.’”
Churak said Shader had been in the jail for about six months for a drug and felony possession charge.
Shader’s hand-written letters allege that cells were not disinfected as often as the sheriff’s office claimed and that temperature checks were not conducted twice a day as officials claimed.
“(The mayor and Bexar County Judge) said people that are infected are being separated,” Shader wrote. “That is all good but if they aren’t testing us how do they know who is sick?”
In response, Salazar said University Health System is in charge of the testing and temperature checks.
“If UHS hospital tells me that they're coming through twice a day and taking temperatures of all the inmates, I have no reason to doubt them,” Salazar said.
Shader also alleged that his unit, Alpha-Foxtrot, faced retaliation from jail staff.
“… Because I’ve been writing to the press, they are retaliating against the inmates of Alpha-Foxtrot by locking us down and calling it quarantine,” he claimed.
Salazar said there was no retaliation taking place, and that any inmates that experienced retaliation could file a grievance.
“They’re being locked down quite a bit of the day. If they want to look at that as punishment of some sort, I’m sorry. We’re trying to do it for their own good,” Salazar explained. “If he feels like he's being retaliated against, he can certainly file a grievance against that deputy or deputies, whoever it is. But the deputies were under orders… We’re trying to keep these folks locked down for their own safety.”
Inmates — termed trustees — often handle food preparation and service in the jail. However, because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the trustees are no longer allowed to fulfill that responsibility. Administrators were concerned they had been exposed to the virus.
Now, Aramark — a food purveyor that provides cafeteria services to large institutions — has assumed that large operation.
“We don’t know if they were (exposed), we don't know if they weren't,” Salazar explained. “But in an abundance of caution — again, we said that we overreact to these things — we pulled them. We said, ‘Y’all aren’t touching food because we can't have this outbreak the whole jail.’”
So, Salazar said, Aramark is trying to conduct the food service operation with its own employees, which, he admitted, has resulted in delays in providing food to the inmates.
He said he was not comfortable with the delays.
“I look at these inmates as if this is... somebody's dad, somebody's brother, somebody's sister. If I can feed him quickly, I'm going to feed him quickly,” he said. “We did fall behind on some meals as we were getting Aramark up and running. Right now, as it stands, we're making preparations for Aramark to start cooking temporarily anyway… outside the jail, so they won't be using the jail facilities.”
In some cases, inmates waited up to 10 hours to receive food.
Reducing the jail population
The average population of the jail is usually under 4,000 inmates. At the start of the pandemic, there were about 3,800 inmates. Salazar said that has been reduced to about 3,020. Many of the inmates were released through expedited means.
Salazar has some legal discretion that enables him to release inmates early for completed tasks like jail maintenance or kitchen duties.
“In a nutshell, 20 of those inmates — I gave them about two to three weeks off their sentence,” he explained, “and those were all nonviolent misdemeanors that we did that with. The rest of those 800 — something was done through judges, judges putting him through, giving him a bond and letting them bond out through the regular process. So, the judges are most of the heavy lifting on that.”
At the end of March, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order that prevented the release of inmates who had been previously convicted of violent offenses. In some circumstances, these inmates were in jail on current charges because they could not afford bail.
On Thursday, the Texas Supreme Court sided with Abbott’s order allowing it to stand.
“The Texas Supreme Court’s decision rightfully protects the health and safety of Texans from the unlawful release of potentially thousands of dangerous individuals into our communities. The court’s ruling rightly upholds the rule of law and maintains the integrity of our criminal justice system,” said Attorney General Ken Paxton. “Texans must continue to work together to protect our communities during this unprecedented health crisis.”
The court did not rule on any constitutionality of the order however.
The Texas Organizing Project (TOP) announced this week that it planned to bail out inmates in jails across Texas, including Bexar County. A news release issued on Tuesday said “it is bailing people out of the dangerous conditions in our jails.”
The organization planned to assist people with low bonds – specifically people who awaited trial for misdemeanor and felony charges in jail because they could not afford bond on their own.
“People should be home with their families,” said Michael Roberts, a TOP leader from Bexar County. “None of these people we’re bailing out are eligible for the death penalty, and they shouldn’t get a defacto death sentence just because they don’t have the money to bail out. Everyone has a right to life, dignity and justice.”
The sheriff’s office said it would help the group determine which inmates make good candidates for bail.
Salazar explained: “What we're doing with them is we're actually supplying them with the names of people that we think would be good candidates for it. And then they make the decision based upon what their resources are and how comfortable they feel.”
Salazar added that this effort to responsibly reduce the jail’s population made good economic sense too. He estimated that every inmate released would offset the cost to the jail by about $50 per person per day.
“Plus, it lessens our footprint and chances that we’re going to pass on that illness within the facility,” he said.
Also, Bexar County’s efforts were not unique. A recent report from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards showed that the statewide jail population dropped by 10,000 people, or 15%, through March, in an attempt by counties to mitigate the spread of the virus in their facilities and in their communities.
So, what happens when that inmate is released and returns to Bexar County society? Salazar said each one has their temperature check and are advised to seek medical attention if they detect any problems.
“We’re checking their temperature on the way out the door, and we're keeping a log of that,” he said. “Granted, I haven't been made aware of it, but if somebody were to... come up feverish, that doesn't give us enough to latch onto him and hang on to him. But it's enough to say, ‘Hey sir, your temperature's elevated. You may want to go get yourself checked out.’”
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