Some inmates of the Harris County Jail who are awaiting trial for non-violent offenses will be headed home until their day in court, following an order issued Wednesday by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
Hidalgo announced the order Tuesday in a press conference in which she said reducing the jail population was a necessary step to avoid a coronavirus outbreak that would in turn endanger the larger community.
The Harris County Jail system is the third largest jail system in the United States. Hidalgo said there were 7,791 prisoners in the county jail system Tuesday, mostly in a cluster of buildings on the north end of downtown Houston.
She also noted that about 3,000 people work inside the jails daily, including staff, contractors and law enforcement personnel.
She said this number is lower than the usual count and estimated that about 1,000 inmates will be released.
The order applies only to prisoners who have not yet been tried and convicted. She emphasized that all will still go to trial and will be punished if convicted.
On Wednesday the Harris County Jail website reported that of the 7,791 prisoners, more than 6,000 of them were waiting for trial and had not yet been convicted of a crime.
However, several categories of prisoners will not be eligible for release under the new order:
• prisoners accused of crimes involving physical force, threat of physical force or unwanted sexual touching
• prisoners previously convicted of one of those crimes
• prisoners being held under a protective order
• prisoners being held on a charge of burglary of a habitation or DWI (third or more).
The order also said that prisoners may not be released if they show symptoms of COVID-19.
Anyone released under the order who is charged with a new crime may not be released under the order.
Also, non-financial conditions may be imposed on the people being released, such as protective orders, drug testing, ignition interlock systems or ankle monitors.
Harris County Ed Gonzalez said he received the order and will begin putting it into effect. The order requires the sheriff to provide a list of inmates who appear to be eligible for release to the justice administration department, the district attorney, the county public defender and the community supervision and corrections department. Any of those departments may flag a prisoner who does not meet the requirements.
“Already, 12 of my deputies and other HCSO teammates have been infected,” he said. “At the moment, there is only one confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Harris County jail, and we must do everything we can to keep it that way.
“It’s a race against time, because we already have 35 more inmates in isolation quarantine because they have COVID-19 symptoms, but haven’t received official confirmation via lab results,” he said.
Baytown Jail screening
Baytown police spokesman Lt. Steve Dorris said Baytown Police Department is aware of the new county policies and is making its own adjustments to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection in the city jail.
“These are uncharted waters for all of us,” he said. “With that said, it is our responsibility to heed the advice from the medical experts when it comes to this infectious virus. We all have to work together to make sure all of us, at every level, are doing what we can to reduce the risk of exposure and flatten the curve.”
He said prisoners arriving at the jail are being screened for symptoms of the virus and asked about recent travel when they arrive at the jail.
Also, the department has fewer people being brought to jail, and those arrested for county-level crimes are being transferred quickly to the county jail.
“All of these things have improved our ability to keep inmates separated if needed,” Dorris said. “We have also increased our cleaning intervals of the facility itself to mitigate potential exposures.”
While County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in her announcement of the order to release certain pre-trial inmates that she had consulted extensively with interested groups, Dorris said there was not direct consultation between the judge and Baytown police.
Bill Nelson, president of the Baytown Municipal Police Officers Association, also said there was not consultation with the Texas Municipal Police Officers Association.
Chambers Co. Jail minimizing public contact
In Chambers County, Sheriff Brian Hawthorne reports his office is taking steps to reduce the jail population and to minimize the risk of coronavirus infection among prisoners and staff.
In-person visitation by family and friends has been suspended, though prisoners can still see their attorneys in person and law-enforcement officials may meet with inmates. Inmates have access to a pay phone system so they can remain in contact with family and friends, he said.
Hawthorne said his office is reducing the number of jail admissions by issuing notices to appear (similar to a traffic ticket) for non-violent misdemeanors when possible and arranging personal recognizance bonds and pre-trial releases for in-custody non-violent offenders.
Also, he said, “We are wiping down all doors and walls with disinfectant every hour; taking temperatures and screening all incoming inmates; following all [Centers for Disease Control] and [Texas Commission on Jail Standards] protocols and recommendations and exceeding their guidelines as much as possible.