Monday, April 20, 2020

Snapshot of coronavirus in Texas county jails

Today, as Grits catches up on all that's happened while I've been under the weather, I decided to check in on the extent of coronavirus contagion reported so far in Texas county jails. Here's an update.

Statewide, according to data from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, as of April 19, 180 Texas county jail inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, as well as 153 jailers. Another 3,668 inmates were in isolation/quarantine, 160 inmates were awaiting test results, and 3 inmates with active COVID cases were being treated offsite. By contrast, test results were pending for all 144 jailers who were quarantined or isolated because of the virus, so testing clearly has been concentrated among staff, not inmates.

The most troubling situation arises in Harris County. In Houston, reported KTRH radio on April 20:
The number of Harris County Sheriff’s Office employees diagnosed with coronavirus has reached 126, with 108 of the positive test results being among those who work in the jail. 
There are currently 327 Harris County Sheriff’s Office deputies, detention officers and support staff on quarantine for possible COVID-19 exposure. Six of these employees are currently in the hospital. As of Monday, 153 previously quarantined employees – including 20 who previously tested positive for the virus -- have returned to duty. Seventy-nine Sheriff’s Office employees are still awaiting test results. Forty-three employees have received negative test results.
After Harris, Dallas County faces the biggest numbers. According to TCJS, 64 inmates have tested positive, along with 19 staff. An additional 39 inmates and 11 staff have been tested and are awaiting results, while 428 inmates were being kept in isolation but haven't been tested. A federal lawsuit filed in Dallas seeks to have medically vulnerable inmates released. The Sheriff says the county is already seeking to fast track release of medically vulnerable and has asked local law enforcement agencies to issue more citations instead of arresting people for low level offenses. But at some point, it's possible the federal courts could intervene.

In the San Antonio Express News we find a remarkable news story about COVID in the Bexar County Jail. There, "the number of inmates infected with the virus had grown to 20, including three being treated at a hospital. In addition, 21 deputies and five staffers who work at the jail have tested positive. Fourteen of the deputies were in the same cadet class, fresh from the training academy."

The Bexar Sheriff's Office announced new policies to address the virus:
In response to the outbreak, Sheriff Javier Salazar said he enacted a handful of changes at the jail, including the distribution of masks to all 3,000 inmates, twice-daily temperature checks and frequent cleanings of common areas, including the recreation room.
He said several units are locked down — confining nearly 1,000 inmates to their cells for 23 hours a day — and that the jail’s inmate worker program has been suspended after an inmate working in the kitchen was possibly exposed to the virus.
But reporter Emilie Eaton offered first-hand accounts painting a different picture:
In interviews with nearly a dozen inmates, their families and lawyers, they described a facility where 60 inmates are housed in a space with bunk beds barely 3 feet apart, not nearly the 6-foot separation needed for safe social distancing, cleanings are infrequent and not thorough, disinfectant is watered down, and temperature checks occur less than twice a day. 
The inmates said the staff provide minimal information about the outbreak in the jail, feeding false rumors about the virus. They talked about feeling scared and dealing with their fear by making morbid jokes about death. 
Lately, meals have been irregular and meager.
Cleaning in the Bexar Jail was also a fraught issue:
Five inmates said cleaning of the common areas was not happening twice daily, as the sheriff says. Inmates, who do the cleanings, said the yellow solution used could be described as “warm water” or “warm water with a tiny bit of disinfectant.” They said they’re not able to get more of it. 
Leilani Minjarez said her husband, who is in jail on a family violence charge, was tasked with cleaning the common areas a few weeks ago. 
“It’s not even a cleaning solution,” she said. “It’s 20 times diluted. He says he feels like he’s cleaning with dirty water.”
All the inmates said they weren’t given masks until a week ago — after the first inmate tested positive. By some estimates, it took even longer. They said the masks are flimsy and look like they’re meant to be disposed of daily. Some are falling apart. The guards have refused to give them new ones, they said. 
The inmates are each provided with one small, motel-size bar of soap a week, and when that is gone, they said, they either do without, find scraps that other inmates have left behind or have to buy more from the jail commissary. 
Inmates who don’t have money to spend on food in the commissary go hungry. One man told his lawyer that “everyone is starving.”
Sheriff Salazar disputed some of those contentions, saying cleaning is happening, masks are available, and they've asked their food vendor, Aramark, to begin preparing food offsite to avoid some of the problems described.

Otherwise, most counties have reported no confirmed COVID cases, but that may just be because the aren't testing. You can't report results you never receive, after all. Travis County has no inmates who've tested positive, but the press reported one jailer who did, though the case wasn't listed in the TCJS report.

Here are the other counties that have reported positive COVID cases to TCJS as of April 19:

Tarrant County has seen seven inmates and one jailer test positive, with one other inmate and 11 jailers awaiting test results.

Webb County has seen seven inmates and nine jailers test positive, with one inmate and one jailer awaiting test results. Another 111 untested inmates have been placed in isolation.

In Denton County, one inmate, three jailers tested positive, but testing for inmates appears very limited - none were awaiting results, as of 4/19, though three jailers have tested positive.

In Hidalgo County, one inmate and one jailer have tested positive, with no additional tests pending.

In Montgomery County, one inmate has tested positive and no others have been tested, although 8 jailers are currently in isolation awaiting test results.

In Gregg County, one inmate and three jailers have tested positive. Two jailers are in isolation awaiting test results, but no other inmates have been tested.

Historically, during contagions, jails have been incubators of disease. (See this excellent, extended Twitter thread documenting the problem dating to the 18th century.) In the largest Texas county jails, we're at risk of history repeating itself.

Once the virus is within the jail walls, there's really no way to prevent its spread. Even if inmates are kept in cells, most are double bunked and there's no way to avoid interaction with staff, who are just as vulnerable as are the inmates. In New York City, things got so bad that some 1,500 inmates were released to limit the impact. About 3% have recidivated and landed back in jail, which of course is the subset the local press focuses on, but at the end of the day, most did not, and incarcerating fewer people is the only sure way to limit the risk.

Texas' three largest counties may soon reach a tipping point when it comes to the coronavirus in their jails, especially Harris County, with employees coming down with the disease in such large numbers it calls into question their ability to house inmates at the volumes presently incarcerated there. More testing would be helpful, but it also risks exposing a problem bigger than the jails are prepared to handle. We haven't reached that point yet, but if and when they do, Sheriffs will need a Plan B besides playing the PR game and hoping for the best.

RELATED: District Attorneys in Dallas, Bexar, Nueces, and Fort Bend Counties, represented by my neighbor, Jessica Brand, filed an amicus brief in the lawsuit before the Texas Supreme Court related to the legality of the governor's executive order related to COVID-related jail releases. See here for more detail on their position.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

No you didn’t. This didn’t happen and you are making this up.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Agreed, 11:13, I deleted the referenced misinformation. Sorry I didn't get to it sooner.