Efforts Slow to Reduce Crowded Texas Jail Amid Pandemic

NBC 5 News

A federal judge on Tuesday expressed frustration over what she saw as a lack of progress in efforts to try and relieve overcrowding at Texas' largest county jail, where some inmates have described the facility as a "metal can of contagion" because of ongoing concerns about a potential COVID-19 outbreak.

Concerns about the Harris County Jail were raised this month by Sheriff Ed Gonzalez after its population 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. The jail population had only dropped to about 8,800 inmates as of Tuesday, with most awaiting trial.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal, who is presiding over a lawsuit that accuses the county's felony bail system of keeping poor defendants locked up only because they can't afford to pay a bond, had asked the sheriff's office, prosecutors, public defenders and state court judges to see if some 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.

But in court documents, the Harris County District Attorney's Office said of a list of more than 1,500 inmates identified by the sheriff's office as possibly being eligible for reduced bonds, it would only agree to bond reductions in 60 of the cases.

Prosecutors said most of the inmates on the sheriff's list were facing violent charges or they had holds on their cases.

At the start of the pandemic last year, Gov. Greg Abbott had issued an executive order preventing 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.

During a virtual court hearing Tuesday, Rosenthal was told that of the 60 cases prosecutors had indicated last week they would have no objections to bond reductions, only seven inmates had since been released.

"We are adding to the public danger by our inability to move more quickly. I know it is keeping many of us awake at night and it should, it absolutely should," said Rosenthal, who has already ruled in a separate case that the county' bail system is unconstitutional in some misdemeanor cases.

In recent weeks in Texas, the rising toll of new deaths had been the worst since the pandemic began.

In a handwritten motion filed on Monday in the felony bail lawsuit, a group of nine inmates at the county jail told Rosenthal that conditions at the facility, where individuals are "elbow to elbow" and ventilation is poor, have caused inmates to feel "the impending doom of confined hopelessness that slowly diminishes sanity."

The inmates wrote their hopes of being freed from a "metal can of contagion" are dashed because "the same virus that threatens their lives have robbed friends & and or family of funds to hire an attorney or pay the bond."

Some law enforcement as well as some local and state officials, along with crime victim advocates have pushed back on a mass release of inmates during the pandemic, alleging lax bail practices have already resulted in the release of dangerous individuals who have committed additional crimes, including murder.

Murray Fogler, an attorney for the county sheriff, told Rosenthal the process of reducing the jail's population is "excruciatingly slow" due to a court system that's become backlogged because the pandemic shut down trials for months. He also said state court judges have not held bond reduction hearings quickly enough.

Rosenthal, who can't order state court judges to have hearings, said what she can do is ask all the parties involved to work together to identify more individuals whose bonds could be reduced and to schedule proceedings for making decisions on this issue.

"If we can do that, we won't be doing nothing. We won't be doing enough but we won't be doing nothing," Rosenthal said.

Texas COVID-19 Case Trends

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Cases are cumulative by day and are subject to change, dependent on each county health department's reporting schedule and methodology.

Data: County Health Departments, NBC 5 Staff
Nina Lin/NBC

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