Harris Co. considers releasing inmates over COVID-19 concerns

Jails and prisons can be breeding grounds for disease.

"We do have an aging population here we have several hundred that are above 55 years of age and also very sick," said Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.

With more than 8,000 inmates at Harris County Jail, social distancing is not possible.

"We operate in tight spaces," the sheriff said. "So there's not a lot of opportunity for social distancing."

There have been no known cases of COVID-19 in the Harris County Jail, but that will likely change.

Remember, most inmates in the jail are pre-trial, meaning they have not been convicted of a crime.

"We are working on our compassionate releases that are smart, that make sense, that don't put the community at harm," Gonzalez said. "It’s important for us to balance this public health crisis with public safety. So we are working with our judges and other avenues to see how we could, in a smart way, release population, if it makes sense.”

“There are no cases of TDCJ in or connected to any TDCJ facility,” says TDCJ spokesman Jeremy Desel.

Prison officials are doing what they can to keep it that way. Like jails, no visitations are allowed. Everyone, including new inmates, must be screened before entering a Texas prison. 

“The offenders are taken through a screening process before they even set foot inside the unit that includes the same questionnaire, whether they may or may not have been in contact or traveled to any areas where there is coronavirus, also what their health situation is now, and then their temperature is taken,” Desel says.

While the county jail can consider compassionate releases, it's not as cut and dry for state prisoners. 

“We take our orders on any sort of releases from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, the governor's office,” Desel says.

An execution that was scheduled for Wednesday was halted. The judge who stated cited fears of the coronavirus. Prison officials say scheduled executions will continue unless a judge steps in to stop them.

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