Last month, as Texas began to shutter businesses and cancel public events, counties across the state began cutting the number of people in local jails, concerned that the facilities offered a particularly deadly breeding ground for the pandemic. On March 1, there were more than 68,000 people in Texas jails, including people being held pre-trial and those who’d been convicted and sentenced. On April 1, there were just over 58,000.
That 10,000-person reduction, about 15% of the state’s jail population, is shown in population reports from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. It’s unclear whether or to what degree the jail population may have shrunk over the course of April.
Experts say conditions inside make jails particularly prone to infectious disease outbreaks. There’s a high level of churn as people are booked in and released from the jail each day, and as staffs change shifts, providing ample vectors for a virus to get in. The inability for social distancing and a general lack of hygiene products makes disease spread more likely, and people in jail have higher rates of chronic health problems, according to national statistics.
Counties across the state have enacted changes to reduce coronavirus risks, including blocking visitation and group activities and increasing cleaning and access to sanitizing products, as well as screening new arrivals for fevers and separating people suspected of being infected from the general population.
Despite the efforts, nearly 300 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday, according to TCJS data, with more than 180 awaiting test results and nearly 5,000 people quarantined or isolated. Nearly 170 jailers have tested positive, and about that many are awaiting test results. In North Texas, jails in Dallas County, Tarrant County and Denton County have reported confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates or staff. Harris County and Bexar County have also reported cases.
As concerns about the coronavirus mounted, local governments began to employ a variety of tactics to reduce the number of people coming into jail and started releasing people locked inside.
Some Texas police departments have implemented formal or informal rules directing officers to give citations rather than arrest people for low-level offences. Some counties released medically fragile inmates and people charged with or convicted of non-violent crimes, as well as inmates with a short amount of time left on their sentences. Courts set up video conferencing systems so prosecutors and defense attorneys could cement plea agreements that would get people out of the jail.
According to the TCJS data, the cuts affected all categories of jail inmates, including felony and misdemeanor cases, people who’d been arrested but not yet convicted of a crime, and those who were serving time for crimes they’d been convicted of committing.
Several of the state’s largest counties saw even larger reductions in their jail populations: Hidalgo, Montgomery, Travis and Williamson all cut their jail populations by 25% or more.
The 14 largest counties in Texas all saw declines. In order of largest reduction:
- Montgomery County: -35%
- Williamson County: -30%
- Travis County: -26%
- Hidalgo County: -25%
- Bexar County: -24%
- Collin County: -19%
- Tarrant County: -17%
- Denton County: -14%
- Fort Bend County: -13%
- Harris County: -13%
- Nueces County: -13%
- El Paso County: -9%
- Dallas County: -8%
- Cameron County: -4%
Brazoria County, the state’s 15th largest, increased the number of people in its jail by 3%.
County jail-shrinking efforts were hampered by an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott that barred counties from releasing people charged with violent offenses without charging them a cash bail. Abbott said he issued the order to “stop the release of dangerous felons” amid the outbreak. The rule also applied to people arrested for threats of violence, and those arrested for non-violent offenses who had previously been convicted of a violent offense.
Officials in some of the state’s largest counties balked at the order, arguing that it would allow rich people charged with violent crimes to get out of jail, while poor people facing the same charges would be stuck inside because they couldn’t afford to make bail. Harris County’s misdemeanor judges filed suit to block the order, and were initially successful.
On Thursday, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the judges didn’t have standing to bring the suit. Civil rights and criminal defense groups said they'd continue to challenge the order.