Criminal Justice

Conversations Inside Harris County Jail Reveal Difficulty Of Stopping COVID-19 Spread

Health professionals are afraid of an outbreak in Harris County Jail spreading into the community. Phone calls with inmates inside the jail underscore that concern.

Inmates inside the Harris County Jail, on July 25, 2019.

This is the first part of a two-part series on COVID-19 in detention facilities, and how the disease can spread. Click here for part two of the story, focused on immigration detention.

This story has been updated to reflect new data from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, including the first death related to the coronavirus in the Harris County Jail.

On a phone call from inside the Harris County jail, one inmate says his chest is burning. He speaks into the receiver, but his breathing is so labored that he can barely be heard. At times, he breaks out into fits of coughing and wheezing. He has no appetite, and he hasn’t eaten in days, he said.

Surrounded by about two dozen other people inside a pod in Downtown Houston, the man said there’s no way to practice any semblance of social distancing, recommended by health officials amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as recreation time outside the cells and personal visits have been limited, there’s an inescapable fact about jails: you’re still forced to be close to another person — sometimes within inches, he said.

The man at one point begins to explain how he wants to be tested for COVID-19: “I feel like I’m suffocating,” he said.

He paused to catch his breath before continuing.

“I’ve literally got to focus on breathing,” he said. “I’ve got to control my breathing.”

Recorded phone calls and interviews from within the Harris County jail, obtained by Houston Public Media, provide a glimpse into the difficulties faced by inmates, doctors and jail employees in dealing with the spread coronavirus. Some of those inmates, whose names we are withholding by request, reported a lack of cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, while living in close proximity to people in quarantine. For a period of time while the outbreak was occurring, there were not enough masks to go around, some said. 

One inmate, echoing the sentiments of everyone on the recordings, said he was afraid for his life and the lives of those around him.

“People are worrying themselves sick due to the lack of the safety,” the man said. “We are all in serious need of help, and nobody seems to be helping us.”

A spokesman for Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who operates the county jails, said that the office has gotten new shipments of masks since these recordings, and now has a stockpile of about 122,000. Sanitation crews regularly make sweeps of the premises, and employees do their best to keep movement to a minimum.

But even the sheriff’s office has admitted that there’s only so much it can do to stop the spread with the resources it has. And Gonzalez, like others, has been pushing for the “compassionate release” of some inmates deemed low risk, to help lower the jail population, which he says would provide more distance between people and free up resources.  

“We can make sound decisions in balancing public safety and public health needs,” Gonzalez said in a March tweet. “Ultimately, I do not make release decisions, but can only advocate. And advocating I am.”

The county did make plans to lower the jail population. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, following some of the sheriff’s recommendations, drafted an executive order on April 1 allowing for the general release of people accused of certain nonviolent crimes. Gonzalez was to provide a list of those inmates eligible for release, and officials then had 32 hours to complete those releases.

Plans were stalled, however, when an administrative judge issued an order telling judges to ignore that directive.

But the conditions inside the Harris County Jail underscore those concerns, as well as the concerns of some activists and public health experts. And the numbers show the situation in the jail is only getting worse: On Wednesday, the first inmate with COVID-19 in Harris County jail died, and 857 inmates and employees inside the jail have tested positive for COVID-19. In total, 14 inmates and 12 staff members were hospitalized, some in serious condition. 

That spread is unsurprising to doctors. Inmates are constantly interacting in close quarters, and because of space issues, quarantine in the Harris County Jail lasts just seven days, instead of the recommended 14 days when some symptoms of the illness can appear.

That makes jails unique breeding grounds for disease, according to Dr. Marc Robinson, who works inside the Harris County Jail.

“If I tasked you with designing the perfect place for a virus to spread it would be a jail,” Robinson said.

 

Robinson, who is also an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine, added that viruses don’t just stay within the walls of the jail. Unlike prisons, jails are not fixed communities. People come and go — both inmates and guards. Most people in jail don’t stay for more than a year, and some only stay for days, weeks or even hours before being released.  

A recent study from the ACLU found that without reducing jail populations, deaths in the United States could double official estimates. The study also found that more than 2,000 additional people in Texas could die from COVID-19 if jail populations aren’t reduced, with a spread from the Harris County Jail alone accounting for an additional 805 deaths in the community, a 47% increase from projections.

Adding to that fear is the risk of asymptomatic people transferring in and out of the facility. At least one person transferred out of Harris County Jail by immigration enforcement was found to be positive with the coronavirus. It was unclear whether the person contracted the disease in the jail, but it illustrated the very real possibility of spread between detention facilities.

That’s the exact opposite response you would expect during a pandemic in any other circumstance, according to Robinson.

“You want (sick people) to stay away from everyone else,” Robinson said. “You don’t want somebody sitting by them on the bus, you don’t want to take them to a new facility. So yeah, that seems crazy to me that people are transferring.”

But plans to reduce populations have come under fire from critics, including police unions and some republican politicians. In response to talk about releasing inmates, Gov. Greg Abbott issued his own executive order banning the practice in many cases. The order largely models Hidalgo’s directive, but bans the release of anyone who has ever been convicted of a violent crime, regardless of what their current charge is.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo has also criticized such a plan, saying inmate release could pose a public safety risk.

Meanwhile, Robinson said he routinely sees patients who are terrified of life in jail amid the coronavirus.

Some, like Eddie, 56, have even bailed themselves out just to avoid the possibility of infection. (Eddie asked that his last name not be used in this story, for fear of losing work.)

Eddie was arrested two weeks ago on a weapons charge and led through the crowded jail, before being brought to a quarantine holding cell.

When the guard opened the door to the cell, Eddie said he saw garbage on the floor from the previous occupant. The guard himself looked frustrated, Eddie said, and immediately put on gloves to remove the trash from the room. He also promised to return to sanitize the cell.

Eddie said with everything going on, it’s impossible to effectively quarantine.

“They’re putting us in cells that may have COVID already, to check to see in seven days if you have COVID,” he said.

A man in the cell next to Eddie was screaming, in fear of getting sick. After waiting for hours, Eddie said he couldn’t take it anymore: He scrounged up $4,000 for bail, and was released.

Now Eddie is home and self-quarantined. He’s sick, with shortness of breath and a cough. He was tested for COVID-19 Friday, and is awaiting his results.

When asked if he was afraid of getting the disease, Eddie laughed.

“That’s an understatement,” he said. “I just wanted to get out.”

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Paul DeBenedetto

Senior Producer

Paul DeBenedetto is Houston Public Media's senior web producer, writing and editing stories for HoustonPublicMedia.org. Before joining the station, Paul worked as a web producer for the Houston Chronicle, and his work has appeared online and in print for the Chronicle, the New York Times, DNAinfo New York, and other...

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