Criminal Justice

People Inside Texas Jails Detail Conditions Making It Hard To Fight COVID-19

Recordings and letters provided to Houston Public Media provide a glimpse into the jails as COVID-19 continues to spread across Texas.

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

Thomas Eberly had a stark warning at last week’s Harris County Commissioners Court meeting.

Eberly, a program director at the nonprofit Justice Management Institute (JMI), told commissioners the jail population was ballooning in Harris County, one of the country’s largest jail systems. After weeks of reduction, the number had begun climbing again, thanks to a backlog of cases. There were now more than 8,000 people jailed in Harris County, and the population could reach 10,000 by Labor Day, he said. 

“The justice system has been struggling since Hurricane Harvey, and I’m sure you’re all aware,” Eberly told the commissioners. “And now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the criminal justice system is on the verge of collapse in your county.”

In its report, JMI suggested a first step to fixing the problem: dismissing charges for all people accused of nonviolent felonies.

In a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal, as part of the lawsuit against felony cash bail in Harris County, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez called it a “sobering analysis” from JMI, and said the county would have no choice but to outsource detention of inmates to other facilities. 

Advocates have been afraid for months that crowded conditions like this threaten to worsen the spread of COVID-19 in both the jails and the surrounding community. One report from the ACLU found that, left unchecked, jail conditions could be responsible for an additional 2,000 deaths in Texas, and almost 100,000 more deaths than projected nationwide. And the report did not account for prisons or immigration detention centers, which have also struggled to keep the spread of the coronavirus in check.

But Harris County isn’t alone in dealing with COVID-19.

A series of recordings and letters from inside jails across Texas provided by the Texas Jail Project, a nonprofit advocacy group, give a firsthand look at conditions that have made it difficult to stop the spread of COVID-19. Krish Gundu, co-founder of the group, said she’s listened to countless scared phone calls from people inside the jails and their family members. People crammed together, sometimes 24 people to a pod, sometimes asked to line up shoulder-to-shoulder, or sitting closely together during meals.

“These are the folks that are directly being impacted by the policies on the outside, and you know, as hard as it has been in the free world to self-isolate and protect ourselves, folks in jails have no ability at all to physically distance themselves from one another,” Gundu said. “And they don’t have the kind of access to medical care that you and I have. So the jails are already a public health crisis, but now we’re seeing, now it’s sharply in focus, as to how much of a crisis it is.”

PREVIOUSLY: Houston Matters Looks Inside The Harris County Jail

For their part, jail and prison facilities have put in place policies to try and slow, if not stop, the spread of the virus. Movement has been limited, in-person visits have stopped, and sheriffs across the state say they’ve instituted new cleaning regimens and quarantine procedures to try and mitigate the problem.

In April, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff ordered more than 50,000 masks for people inside the San Antonio-area jail, and instituted an immediate two-week quarantine for all newly incarcerated people. Around the same time, Harris County Sheriff Gonzalez announced a donation of 600 masks and soap, and his office began expanding tests within the jail.

But across the board, people in these facilities say no amount of “social distancing” protocol is enough in such confined spaces, and that cleaning supplies are often difficult to come by.

In Taylor County, inmate Jesus Perry said he ate his meals off a tray with his fingers, rather than being given an eating utensil. On one recent occasion, when guards did hand out supplies, Perry was asleep and had to wait days for more. 

“They pass out a little bar of soap, too, with the toilet paper, but if you miss it you don’t get it,” Perry said. “So I missed it, so I have to wash my hands just with water, I’m embarrassed to say that.”

“I’ve got fungus on my nails now, because of that I think,” he added.

Perry detailed struggles with his mental health in the jail, and said it’s hard to get basic information about the virus.

“They don’t tell us nothing about it,” he said. “I think my wife told me, that the coronavirus, it was bad outside, right?”

Veteran inmates at the unveiling of the “Brothers in Arms” program at Harris County Jail. Taken on July 25, 2019.

That lack of information was another common refrain among inmates. Some said the only information they received from jail staff was printed-out notes about washing hands posted in the unit. Others, like David Dial in Wood County Jail, have trouble being in contact with anyone — he’s been in a solitary cell for months, unable to learn more about the virus spreading across the community.

“I’m locked in a 7-by-9 (foot) cell with four walls to look at,” Dial said. “I can’t talk to nobody, I can’t see nobody, I can’t watch TV, nothing.”

In the state’s prisons, 7,445 incarcerated people and 1,116 staff members had tested positive for the virus as of Monday, out of a reported 138,000 tests, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. At least 62 people connected with the prisons have died from complications related to the virus.

Texas has spent $45 million on self-administered coronavirus tests, and the state corrections department said it provided videos on how to perform the tests.

But at least one inmate in the Barry B. Telford unit said neither he nor anyone in his block had seen the agency-created video, and written instructions omitted key details.

“The world is now a crucible of the novel coronavirus, where the fire of disease and death tests the intellectual and political forces that inform today’s social policy,” the inmate at Barry B. Telford wrote in a letter. “Prisons — where COVID-19 spreads unhindered through its facilities — provides an abundance of fuel for the fire.”

Advocates have argued for months that the only answer is to reduce these populations, to free up space and resources. And some counties have tried. In March, jails across the state began to reduce populations, leading to an initial drop of 10,000 people inside the jails, from 68,000 in March to 58,000 in April. But that number has again risen, to nearly 60,000 on June 1, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

The jump in Harris County provides a look at why reducing those populations can prove difficult. Sheriff Gonzalez had previously pushed to release people accused of nonviolent offenses under a “compassionate release” plan, endorsed and put into action by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. 

But an administrative judge overturned that plan before it took effect, after an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott that banned the release of certain people from local jails. And the plan was blasted by Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and the city’s police union. Gonzalez halted the releases, per the judge’s order.

In Travis County, a similar release plan appears to have kept the coronavirus in check: There are currently just three confirmed cases among the jail population, according to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. 

But Chris Harris, with social justice advocacy group Texas Appleseed, said he’s concerned Travis and other counties aren’t testing enough to get the full picture.

“It’s really difficult to know in a lot of cases what’s going on in these facilities, and unfortunately the reporting requirements don’t seem to be being met uniformly across the state,” Harris said. “If we don’t have good reporting, it very well could be that there’s a lot more cases.”

That means a higher likelihood that the virus would spread outside the jail — and it means even more people locked inside could be exposed.

“Avoiding outbreaks anywhere in our community is extremely important,” Harris said. “And really, jails we’re seeing as potential vectors for disease across not just the state but across the country.”

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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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