Last week, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Texas rose, Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner urged local police to think twice about who they arrest and bring to his jail.
In his letter to local law enforcement officials, first reported Wednesday by the Dallas Morning News, Skinner noted that more than 50 people a day enter the 1,300-bed county lockup that he oversees. The sheriff, a Republican, suggested that whenever possible, officers should issue citations rather than arresting and booking people, especially for those accused of petty or nonviolent offenses like getting caught with a joint. “I ask you to use your best judgment on arrests and transports to the county jail,” Skinner wrote. “Would you arrest if you and your staff had to take custody of and care for the person?”
Skinner isn’t the only Texas sheriff looking to reduce his jail population amid fears that COVID-19 could quickly spread behind bars. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzales, a Democrat who has also urged police to stop making low-level arrests, is now working with local judges to release nonviolent defendants stuck in jail, according to the Houston Chronicle. On Friday, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, also a Democrat, issued his own plan that would—in addition to implementing new health screenings and other precautions—minimize arrests and lower the county jail population “in an effort to protect the community we serve, our employees, and the inmates within our facility.”
As Texas’ jails and prisons halt visitations to prevent the spread of coronavirus, advocates for incarcerated people say officials should also prioritize reducing the number of people in lockup. In a letter to Governor Greg Abbott on Monday, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition issued several recommendations for law enforcement agencies, judges, and prison officials responding to COVID-19—including parole reforms and compassionate release for the state’s growing population of elderly prisoners.
“While all people working or living in confinement settings are at risk, the virus will be especially dangerous for the rapidly growing aging population, those with disabilities, and those with chronic health issues,” the group wrote in its letter to Abbott. “Moreover, the impact of an inadequate response reaches far beyond incarcerated people themselves. When this highly transmissible virus passes through facilities, confined individuals are likely to contract the virus from staff who enter and exit facilities daily—and staff who have not yet been infected will be at greater risk of becoming ill.”
Advocates for incarcerated people say the threat posed by coronavirus inside jails and prisons, which already struggle to provide adequate medical care, has added urgency to their efforts to curb mass incarceration. Some fear defendants could languish behind bars with poor medical care as the pandemic slows court proceedings. In a Friday webinar on COVID-19 organized by the Justice Collaborative, reform activists, lawyers, and jail experts insisted that corrections facilities are particularly ill-equipped to handle an outbreak. Brittany White, a Dallas organizer with Faith in Action, said she was once incarcerated with someone who died from a staph infection.
“I would love to see mass incarceration thought about as a public health issue,” White said. “This has shown me more than ever that people sitting in prisons are sitting ducks, waiting to be bombarded by sickness, without actual solutions.”
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