Advocates Fight to Protect Texas Inmates From COVID-19

Some jails are releasing inmates to stem outbreaks of the coronavirus, but critics say it is not happening quickly enough to save lives and resources

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As we know, the coronavirus continues spreading quickly, which is why the government has implemented the social distancing rules to try and slowdown that spread.

But social distancing is not that easy when it comes to life behind bars.

Hundreds of COVID-19 cases have been confirmed at correctional facilities nationwide.

At the Dallas County Jail, there are at least seven inmates who have coronavirus. Multiple workers are being quarantined, and there are fears that those numbers are going to climb because of a lack of testing. That is why advocates say uncrowding the jails is the only way to combat this problem.

Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order, saying that inmates, accused or previously convicted of violent crimes could be released from jail, but only if they were able to pay their bail amount.

NBC 5 spoke with a civil rights attorney who says that move could be deemed unconstitutional.

“This is unconstitutional and it raises the questions that have been asked for the past few years about bail reform and cash bail. What has been determined by higher courts, the supreme court even is that those practices have been found to be unconstitutional and discriminates against poor defendants, said civil rights attorney, Justin A. Moore. “So Gov. Abbott's executive order is incredibly  unconstitutional, and I think it creates a situation where it puts our impoverished citizens at risk due to the fact that they can't afford to buy themselves out of situations in which they are being exposed to COVID-19.”

It is also important to note that the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to avoid getting the coronavirus are not that simple for inmates.

Things we’re all using right now like hand sanitizer is illegal in jail. Staying six feet apart is another problem with people living in close quarters.  

Texas has the second-largest prison population in the country. One of the largest in the state is in North Texas.

Back in 2009 during the Swine Flu outbreak, or even in more recent years with the flu outbreak, many jails just went on lockdown.

The civil rights attorney we spoke with says that won’t be enough this time around.

“The reason is that COVID-19 has already spread exponentially faster than those pandemics back in '09 due to the fact that we responded extremely late to this pandemic. We allowed it to get out of hand and now it is seeping into our jail and prisons at a high rate,” said Moore. “So there is no way to control it. So doing lockdowns and things of that nature, that’s not going to help stop the spread of it in the prisons.”  

In places like New York, New Orleans and even in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, they have already started to release inmates because of the coronavirus pandemic. So that raised the question of why isn’t Dallas county following that lead.

“It’s important that Dallas follows this lead and it’s also important that Dallas examines the most extreme measures to get those who are in custody out of harm’s way, and out of the risk of contracting this virus. So we shouldn't just stop at those with technical violations or those with mental illnesses or elderly inmates,” said Moore. “We need to find a safe way to get all inmates out of harm’s way.”

Dallas county sheriff Marian Brown tells NBC 5 they have a plan to segregate the jails population, and they are ensuring that their employees are safe.

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