Harris County moves forward with plan to release certain inmates from jail

HOUSTON – Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an order for the sheriff to begin releasing certain non-violent inmates from the county jail as soon as possible. The effort is designed to reduce the jail population to prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus.

One inmate has tested positive for the virus and another 30 inmates are showing symptoms. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said it is very difficult to engage in social distancing with a jail population of 7,791 inmates, 6,303 of whom are awaiting trial. Data from the Sheriff’s Office shows 213 of these inmates are facing misdemeanors.

While Hidalgo has mentioned as many as 1,000 inmates could be released, the total number is not yet known since each release will have to be vetted and approved by several stakeholders.

“We were on a conference call with several of the judge’s staff members for close to an hour the same day she came out with the edict,” said Houston Crime Stoppers’ Andy Kahan.

Kahan said the biggest point for victim advocates was making sure no violent offenders are released. The judge’s order defines non-violent as, “The use or threatened use of physical force or unwanted sexual touching against another person.”

Still, Kahan said this definition needed to go further.

“It’s the least you can do in government is to look out for victim’s rights, their well-being, their due process,” he said.

Under the judge’s order an inmate cannot be considered for release if they are currently charged or previously convicted of a violent crime, currently subject to a protective order, charged with their third or higher DWI or charged with burglary of a habitation. Those last three points is what Kahan said they pushed for.

“We were glad to see that the judge did listen to us from that perspective and did mention that in her edict,” Kahan said.

The judge’s order does also require inmates to be screened for symptoms of COVID-19 and cleared by a medical professional before release. Conversely, the order also gives to the Sheriff the discretion to “refuse to accept into custody in the Harris County jail system any person who presents with COVID-19 related symptoms and whose detention may threaten the public health of the prisoners, employees or contractors of the Harris County jail system.”

The order also calls for a list of potential releases to be sent to the Harris’s County Justice Administration, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and the Harris County Community Supervision and Corrections Department to be vetted and approved.

Kahan said officials with the judge’s office also promised to send these lists to Crime Stoppers.

“If We’re all gong to be in this together, so we should all be working together, if you’re going to release these types of offenders make sure they do not have any violent criminal history,” Kahan said.

The order calls for inmates to be released on personal bonds and subject to whatever non-financial restrictions and monitoring the courts and Pretrial Services deems necessary.

Officials with the Sheriff’s Office said the first list of potential released inmates could be generated by tomorrow morning and will likely include elderly inmates and those with pre-existing health conditions.

Here is a full copy of the judge’s order:

Here is Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’ full statement on the judge’s order:

“Today, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office received an emergency order from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo mandating the temporary release of a narrow group of inmates with no history of violence. To be eligible for temporary release, an inmate must be charged with -- but not yet convicted of -- a crime that doesn’t involve violence or the threat of violence. Those charged with burglarizing homes or habitual drunk driving will be ineligible as well.

"Before anyone is released, prosecutors, defense attorneys, Harris County Pretrial Services, and the Harris County Justice Administration Department will review each individual case to verify the person qualifies. Outgoing inmates will be screened by medical staff to ensure they have no symptoms of COVID-19 before they leave the jail. Finally, all charges that led to these people’s incarceration will remain pending and anyone convicted will ultimately be held accountable.

"Public safety is my top priority and these releases will not compromise that duty. Even during the public health crisis of COVID-19, HCSO officers and staff bravely serve every day to keep Harris County safe. Already, 12 of my deputies and other HCSO teammates have been infected. We are caring for them, hoping for their recovery, and doing everything we can to contain the spread among staff and inmates in our custody. We have issued guidelines to maintain social distance and increased hygiene, and we are vigilantly monitoring staff and inmates at the jail. But the threat of COVID-19 is increasing exponentially in Harris County and it is only a matter of time before there is an outbreak among the 7,791 inmates in the jail.

"When it does occur, leading Texas Medical Center experts tell us it will spread like wildfire in the overcrowded dorms, cells, and shared bathrooms, showers, and common areas. We have a limited and narrow window to act now to prevent a true crisis. These are unprecedented times and call for immediate and emergency measures, such as this one. If we do not take this action, we will have a public health disaster not only for the jail, but for all of Harris County on our hands.

"If 25% of the jail population is diagnosed with COVID-19, that will result in infection of 2,000 people That estimate is not unrealistic — in close, contained spaces, COVID-19 spreads through the air, contaminated surfaces, and contact with people who are infected but have no symptoms. If 10% of the infected jail population requires hospitalization, that will overwhelm already stretched hospital beds and limited medical resources in the county.

"This is not an abstract or remote or hyperbolic concern. We only have to look to Cook County, the jail complex in Chicago, to see the danger of waiting. In just one week, their confirmed cases exploded from just 2 to over 100 inmates and jail employees. Many more are suspected of being positive and are quarantined. New York City officials are now releasing hundreds of people from the jail to be able to contain the outbreak, but it is too late. In contrast, other places have acted sooner. Los Angeles released 1,700 people from its jail to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19.

"New Jersey recently released 1,000 people.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. Releasing people who pose no documented risk to the community’s safety is a crucial step to put in place social distancing and hygiene measures inside the jail.Right now, ensuring public health is public safety.

"The measures we are taking today to temporarily release people will benefit both public health and public safety in this county.”

Which inmates will be released from jail?

Pre-Trial Releases:

6,303 are currently in the Harris County Jail awaiting trial.

Misdemeanors charges

213 for misdemeanors.

That would mean, to reach the 1,000 inmate goal, inmates in jail on felony charges would also need to be released.

Felony 3 charges

There are 1534 inmates in jail awaiting felony 3 charges.

Most common Felony 3 charges:

Most common Felony 3 charges (KPRC)

About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”