In the past year, many of us have made difficult choices to keep ourselves and loved ones safe from COVID-19. But throughout Texas county jails, incarcerated people have fewer options and depend on local leaders to enact precautions to keep them safe.
Unfortunately, many county leaders have failed to deliver on their responsibility to protect the lives of people inside jails from COVID-19. As a result, the state at large and jails are among the worst COVID-19 hotspots in the country. In fact, more detained people and staff have contracted or died from the virus in Texas than in nearly any other state. Shockingly, approximately 80% of those who have died from COVID-19 in Texas county jails have died pre-trial without being convicted of any crime. In Texas in the midst of a pandemic, pre-trial detention has become a potential death sentence for people presumed innocent under the law.
The spread is exacerbated in part because county jails are revolving doors. The county books people into jail, detains them for days or months in crowded spaces, and ultimately releases or transfers them to new institutions. The result of this churn is an accelerated spread of the virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has repeatedly stated that preventing overcrowding in detention facilities is critically important to slowing the spread. Initially, county officials listened to the experts. The county jails population dropped from 68,307 people at the start of the pandemic in March to 58,254 people at the beginning of April. Now those numbers have surged back to 64,188 as of Dec. 1.
In county jails, bunk beds are usually placed side-by-side, forcing people to sleep mere inches apart from their neighbors even when they display symptoms. Our partners at Texas Jail Project have documented situations where people have experienced retaliation from jail officials simply for requesting that officials follow basic public health protocols like quarantining. Some incarcerated people with severe COVID-19 symptoms have expressed concern about getting their cellmates sick all while being denied tests, treatment, and even basic acknowledgment of their suffering.
This is not only unjust, it’s unconstitutional. Courts have found under both the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments that jail officials must provide people with humane conditions, adequate medical care, and protect the safety of detained people. During a pandemic that rages through crowded spaces, depopulating jails is critical to upholding this constitutional obligation.
That’s why we have identified 38 county jails that have seen significant increases in their populations during this pandemic. Together with Texas Jail Project, we provided sheriffs and other leaders in these counties with additional guidance on reducing jail populations. County sheriffs must collaborate with prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, and county commissioners to take these life-saving steps:
- Release eligible people from jail.
- Issue citations instead of booking people into jail.
- Reject new bookings, especially for people who are elderly, pregnant, or medically vulnerable.
Texas county officials must act urgently to implement these steps. The safety of all Texans depends on it.