Inmate releases debated at Harris County Jail amid pandemic

The Harris County Jail is seen in this Jan. 7, 2016, photo taken in downtown Houston.
The Harris County Jail is seen in this Jan. 7, 2016, photo taken in downtown Houston. (KPRC)

HOUSTON (AP) – A federal judge on Friday asked officials to review how more than 1,900 inmates in Texas’ largest county jail could be released to relieve overcrowding at a facility where officials worry about a potential COVID-19 outbreak.

Earlier this week, attorneys for Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez raised concerns about the county jail, which has a population that’s ballooned to more than 9,000 inmates, leaving little room to quarantine individuals who test positive for the virus or to separate new inmates when they first arrive to ensure they are not sick.

Gonzalez asked for the help of U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal, who is presiding over a lawsuit that accuses the county’s felony bail system of discriminating against poor defendants. Rosenthal has already ruled the system unconstitutional in some misdemeanor cases.

During a virtual court hearing, Rosenthal worried that conditions at the jail, which is one of the largest in the U.S., could risk the health of inmates who are awaiting trial, along with jail employees and their families.

“Nobody wants to turn the jail into a killing field,” Rosenthal said.

As of Thursday, the county jail had 9,087 inmates, including nearly 7,900 awaiting trial or other resolutions to their cases. Most of them were facing felony charges.

Harris County Sheriff’s Office Major Patrick Dougherty told Rosenthal there were only 68 available beds at the jail on Friday. He blamed the jail’s growing population in part on a court system that’s become backlogged because the pandemic shut down trials for months.

In court documents, the sheriff’s office said the coronavirus “persists in the jail” and that the facility is seeing an increase in staff absences due to the virus. Six inmates and two jail staff members have died due to COVID-19.

During the court hearing, Rosenthal and other officials, including law enforcement, prosecutors and public defenders, focused on whether a group of 1,151 inmates facing low level, non-violent felony charges and who were being held on bonds of $10,000 or less could be eligible for bond reductions.

Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that is among the groups that sued the county over bonds in felony cases, suggested state court judges could release these inmates on personal or no-cost bonds.

But Rosenthal said any action they take could not violate an executive order Gov. Greg Abbott issued at the start of the pandemic last year that prevented state and county judges from releasing people accused or previously convicted of violent crimes on no-cost bonds.

Abbott issued his order after elected officials in several counties, including Harris, considered releasing inmates to contain the spread of the virus.

Rosenthal asked Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, along with the public defender’s office, other defense attorneys, the sheriff’s office and judges to work together to determine how they could reduce the bonds of many of those 1,151 inmates to ease their release.

Rosenthal also asked Ogg’s office to review another group of about 360 inmates facing non-violent charges who could be released. She asked officials to review the possible release of a group of about 420 inmates who were only in custody because they couldn’t be transferred to a halfway house or other similar facility because of the pandemic.

The judge asked all the parties involved to report their progress during a Jan. 26 hearing.

“I hope it results in some positive changes within the jail and I use the word positive with caution. All we are doing is trying to make it less awful and less dire,” Rosenthal said.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70