HCSO: Mass testing helping slow spread of COVID-19 at Harris County jail

HOUSTON – Despite the growing number of jail inmates testing positive for COVID-19, officials with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office believe mass testing is helping slow the spread of the virus behind bars. Last week Channel 2 Investigates reported on Sheriff Ed Gonzalez’ efforts to test 3,000 inmates.

“We are not seeing an increase in the number of those who are actually sick,” said Jason Spencer, with HCSO.

Spencer said 593 inmates have tested positive, 150 are asymptomatic and 14 have been hospitalized.

“We’re starting to see those number plateau,” Spencer said.

Spencer said 220 members of the jail staff have tested positive, 80 have returned to work. In fact, Spencer said the number of employees returning to work now outpaces those testing positive for the virus.

“We’re also seeing a flattening of those numbers too, we’re not seeing the big daily increases,” he said.

Spencer said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez took an aggressive stance by testing asymptomatic inmates who simply crossed paths with those who have the virus.

“So that we can isolate them and prevent them from spreading it unknowingly to others,” he said.

Currently more than close to 2,6487 inmates are in observational quarantine about 1,000 have been tested. Spencer said with the jail’s population hovering around 7,600, mass testing is the best route.

“We cannot effectively socially distance in the jail with our population at what it is right now,” Spencer said.

That last point is what brought the county’s bail reform fight back into focus. Political leaders, prosecutors, judges, police and victim’s rights advocates were sparred over how to safely reduce the jail’s population during the pandemic.

“It was happening before, but I think it escalated to another level,” said Crimestoppers’ Andy Kahan.

Kahan is referring to what many in law enforcement see as inadequately low bonds given to violent, repeat offenders.

“Kept seeing the same offenders being released on multiple bonds for different crimes,” Kahan said.

Some judges were blunt in stating they see the issue of pre-trial detainees as a public health matter. Prosecutors fought back in some cases on the grounds of public safety and won. One case involved Timothy Singleton.

In one case, federal agents stepped in.

Kahan shared with KPRC 2 his concerns over the case of Adan Campuzano. Despite a lengthy criminal record, including violent crimes, Campuzano got out on a personal bond after being accused of running from police and having a gun. Following his release, Campuzano was charged with more crimes. Our story caught the attention of an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The agent, who is part of the ATF’s Crime Gun Strike Force, then filed federal charges of felon in possession of a weapon. Campuzano is now in federal custody.

“Guess what, Mr. Campuzano, you’re not going anywhere. You’re staying right where you should’ve been months ago,” said Kahan.

Since the pandemic started, the sheriff and Harris County District Attorney’s Office have been required to file regular updates with a federal court judge on the status of the jail’s population. That judge is overseeing a federal lawsuit involving Harris County’s bail system for felony cases. The judge was asked to intervene in the release of inmates during this outbreak, but declined.