Harris County working to prevent jail from becoming COVID-19 superspreader

HOUSTON – Harris County Jail is not immune to the pandemic as COVID-19 numbers increase statewide, officials said.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office said they’re doing their best to reduce the spread while some loved ones of inmates say they’re a little concerned.

The coronavirus is disproportionately impacting the jail and prison populations, according to an analysis by the University of Texas at Austin. There have been more than 230 COVID-19-related deaths in Texas correctional facilities since the start of the pandemic, including inmates and staff, per the UT report. The report also found that 80% of the people who died in jail from the virus weren’t even convicted of a crime.

Texas is leading the nation with the most inmates infected with the virus, according to the Marshall Project. Harris County is at the top.

"Well we’re the largest county jail in Texas by far, said Jason Spencer, a spokesman for HCSO. “Our average daily population is close to 9,000. So, it would make sense that we would have a significant number of people test positive for COVID within the jail.”

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office runs the jail in downtown Houston. Spencer said the jail isn’t immune to the pandemic.

“As of today, we have three inmates in the hospital being treated for COVID symptoms. Last week it was zero,” he said.

Since May, six inmates and one jail staff have died from the virus, according to Spencer. They were all men ranging in age from their late 50′s to early 70′s. He said the biggest threat is outside people bringing it into the jail. There are currently no visitors allowed.

Spencer also said new inmates are tested and cleared before they enter the general population. He said testing is taking place daily.

“Over 15,000 people in the jail have been tested for COVID,” Spencer said. “We’ve also hired additional medical staff. We have a doctor on staff now whose full-time job is managing the pandemic within the jail.”

Evangeline Petry said her daughter was tested and forced to quarantine in May when she was booked into the county jail. Petry is one of several loved ones of inmates that reached out to KPRC 2 alleging unsanitary and concerning practices at the county jail.

“Of course, I know it’s not 5-star. It’s a jail,” Petry said.

Petry claims while her daughter was quarantined upon arrival at the jail she wasn’t when she contracted COVID-19 in July.

“I do know 100% sure that after she was tested, she did go back to population. I know for sure that they didn’t quarantine her for 14 days after this,” Petry said.

She also said her daughter was given one mask every two weeks. Spencer said that shouldn’t happen if true. He said if someone tests positive, they try to limit that person’s exposure to others.

“You can’t socially distance in jail. That’s just not possible. There are too many people in a tight facility for you to effectively social distance,” said Spencer.

Spencer said has a large supply of masks, though he admits getting full compliance from inmates can be a challenge.