Harris County Sheriff Joe Gonzales believes that jails are “perfect incubators” for the COVID-19 virus. One infected inmate, either bringing the virus into the jail upon arrest or being infected while in custody, has the ugly potential of killing hundreds of inmates, jail personnel, and ultimately spreading the virus into the free community.


In a March 23, 2020 article for the Houston Chronicle, Gabrielle Banks reported that felony judges in Harris County have decided to release some state jail felony offenders. These individuals include defendants convicted of, or charged with, offenses such as “forgery, graffiti, credit card crimes and possession or delivery of marijuana.”


Compassionate Release for Non-Dangerous Offenders


Though pleased with the judicial decision, which affects roughly five dozen inmates, Sheriff Gonzales said the move doesn’t go far enough. He would prefer the release of hundreds of the most vulnerable inmates that have been so identified by public health officials. These would not be offense-specific releases, but instead would be “compassionate releases” for non-dangerous offenders, the sheriff said.


Gonzales pointed out that the Harris County jail houses 8,000 inmates—that’s more people than those who live in 1,142 of Texas’s 1434 towns and cities. The sheriff told the media that several hundred of these 8,000 inmates are 55 years or older and have serious health problems. He said there is no way he can implement any “social distancing” process because jail space is too tight.


“We are working on our compassionate releases that are smart, that make sense, that don’t put the community at harm,” Gonzales said. “It’s important for us to balance this public health crisis with public safety. So, we are working with our judges and other avenues to see how we could, in a smart way, release [this] population, if it makes sense.”


COVID19 in Texas Prisons


Visitation has been shut down in Texas jails and prisons per an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott. However, NBC News reported on March 27, 2020, that there had been three reported COVID-19 cases in the state’s prison system. Those diagnosed represent the spectrum of people in the system; an inmate, a contract worker, and am Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), employee. These infections have resulted in 42 TDCJ employees being placed him “home isolation.”


The TDCJ employee was not a guard but was someone who had contact with others at the Holliday Unit in Huntsville. Holliday has a capacity for 2,128 inmates and 438 employees, 391 of whom are part of the facility’s security staff. The employee left work from the facility because they were not “feeling well” and later tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. An investigation is currently underway to identify who and how many people the employee had contact with at the facility. This NBC News report justifies Sheriff’s Gonzales’ concern and his call to action.


Infected TDCJ Inmate Transferred from Harris County


The infected TDCJ inmate was transferred from the Harris County Jail into TDCJ custody on February 27. The 37-year-old inmate was residing to the Lychner State Jail near Houston, where he began feeling ill on March 21. TDCJ transferred the inmate for treatment to a state hospital facility in Galveston.

Did the inmate contract the virus in the Harris County Jail, en route to the state prison facility, or while at the state prison facility?


Those questions will be answered by a TDCJ investigation.


Release Vulnerable Non-Violent Inmates


At the moment, however, we urge Harris County felony judges to immediately respond to Sheriff Gonzales’ request that “compassionate release” be granted to the extremely vulnerable inmates identified by public health officials now in the sheriff’s custody. An infection of any of these offenders would more likely than not result in fatalities.


No offender should die because they cannot afford to make bail.


The protection of the broader community is the highest priority in this pandemic crisis. Still, society can fulfill this obligation while simultaneously extending compassion to the less fortunate among us. A vulnerable inmate in a tightly enclosed facility with 8,000 other inmates must live with the specter of infection, even death, each day. This situation is tragic when their release would not pose any significant risk to the broader community.


Presumption of Innocence, Compassion


The overwhelming majority of these offenders would have secured release on bail had they possessed the financial means to do so. They are in jail, unable to afford bond, because of poverty and misfortune. They are confined because they are poor, not because a judge or jury has found them guilty.


On March 28, 2020, The Houston Chronicle reported that U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal responded to an “emergency request” by attorneys for immediate bail hearings for thousands of poor inmates who cannot afford bail. “Rosenthal asked the lawyers for indigent defendants and attorneys for the sheriff and the county to assemble by Monday a list of thousands of people who might qualify for release based on their bond amounts, charges, criminal histories and risk factors.” The federal judge instructed the attorneys to “hammer out” a plan that would allow for the release of about 1,000 inmates being detained under bonds of $10,000 or less. The judge added that she would then take up the issue of another 3,400 inmates held on bonds of more than $10,000.


Compassion, decency, and fairness demand the release of any accused offender who cannot post bail and who does not pose any physical threat to the community. No non-dangerous “accused” offender should be kept in a potential death trap that the COVID-19 virus has made of the Harris County Jail.


That presumption of innocence must necessarily entail a presumption of compassion. God help us if we cannot care for the least advantageous among us during this time of crisis.