COVID-19 and Jails

As we continue to work to stop the spread of COVID-19, we need to change how we conduct certain governmental functions. For example, our county jails provide the perfect environment for the spread of viruses like COVID-19, with hundreds, if not thousands of people crammed into tight spaces that make social distancing impossible. Our nation’s jails see 10.6 million admissions a year, and we have already seen the disease spread rapidly in New York City, where 167 inmates and 137 staff members have already tested positive as of March 30th according to the New York Times.

Letting COVID-19 spread through our jails is not just a matter of concern to inmates. It affects us all. According to Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, President of Harris Health, if only a small percentage of jail staff and inmates get coronavirus and take up hospital beds they could overwhelm the region’s resources and effectively deny care to others. With shortages in personal protection equipment (PPE) and limited hospital beds, we need to do everything within reason to limit the places where COVID-19 could rapidly spread. Otherwise, we may not have resources available to many of those diagnosed with COVID-19.

First Responders and Jail Staff Affected
Furthermore, in large counties thousands of people go in and out of jails each day, including first responders, jailers, administrators, custodians, and health professionals. In Harris County alone 3,000contract workers and jail staff go in and out of the jail each day, according to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. Additionally, according to the Houston Chronicle, “Twelve employees of the sheriff’s office, which runs the county jail, have contracted the coronavirus.”

Should the virus spread rapidly in jails, those public servants will be at risk along with their families and everyone they encounter. Allowing our jails to act as petri dishes for the virus is unacceptable.

Local Officials Take the Lead
County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’s decision to decrease the jail population is the right decision, in terms of public health and public safety. Using compassionate release and increasing the use of personal recognizance (PR) bonds, while implementing safeguards to prevent the release of anyone who may pose a threat to public safety, will reduce the likelihood of an even more dramatic increase of COVID-19 cases.  Furthermore, many of those released could get out of jail if they had only had enough money to make a minimal bond payment. This week, Harris County has released about 1,000 inmates from the county jail. This is in line with what other elected officials around the country have done to slow the spread of the virus in jails. In the nation’s three other largest cities; New York City has released over 650 people, Los Angeles County released 1,700 people in March, and Cook County (Chicago) is working to release around 1,000 inmates. With the first case of coronavirus reported in Harris County jail on Sunday, it is not a matter of if or when it spreads in our jails, it is only a question of how bad it will get.

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