By Mitch Borden
Over the past couple of weeks, Texas has seen confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a particularly vulnerable population — inmates. The Harris County Sheriff’s office recently confirmed that at least 1 inmate had COVID-19, while dozens more were showing symptoms consistent with the virus. Other cases have also been reported in Dallas County.
But what’s happening in West Texas? Marfa Public Radio’s Mitch Borden spoke to Carlos Morales about the issues facing West Texas law enforcement and inmates as COVID-19 continues to spread through the state.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Listen to the complete interview by pressing play on the above audio player.
Carlos Morales: All right, Mitch, so what exactly is happening here with jails and the coronavirus?
Mitch Borden: Well, just to start things off, so far, there’s been no reported cases in the Permian Basin or the big bend among inmates. But what people are looking at, basically, is that jails holding accused criminals confined in close quarters is a big liability.
CM: OK. So can you drill down a bit for us there? A big liability —
MB: So we know the coronavirus is really infectious, right? And COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, can be deadly. So we are all supposed to social distance and limit our exposure to other people. Well, that’s almost impossible in a jail filled with inmates. And since they are confined, an outbreak of the virus, could spread through a jail really fast. Also, generally, the conditions at jails aren’t always sanitary… That has lawyers as well as officials worried like James McDermott, who is the chief defense attorney for the Far West Texas Regional Public Defender’s Office. McDermott and his fellow public defenders represent clients in the Big Bend counties, along with Hudspeth and Culberson County. So his defendants are in small rural West Texas jails.
CM: And what makes McDermott here so sure that the Coronavirus will eventually kind of reach these jail populations out here in West Texas?
MB: Well, he says the jails that he goes to are screening incoming arrests for symptoms of COVID-19. But most of these facilities do not have full time medical staff. And even if they did, McDermott believes it’s pretty much impossible to prevent the Coronavirus from infiltrating these facilities because he says there’s no control of who’s coming in and out of prisons.
CM: Okay. So jails could be prime places for an outbreak among prisoners. Mitch, what is being done about this?
MB: Well, it depends on the county. But McDermott and his attorneys have been rushing to get as many of their clients out of jail on personal bonds. So basically, a judge will release arrested individuals if they follow certain protocols until her case is resolved or goes to court. So that could be taking drug tests on a regular basis, checking in with an officer of the court, and a number of other things.
CM: So that’s what’s going around the Big Bend, but how are Midland and Odessa dealing with their populations of inmates?
MB: They’re actually dealing with it very differently. Midland County is taking some really dramatic steps to decrease their jail population, while Ector County, the county Odessa is located in, isn’t.
CM: So then what is Midland doing that’s so dramatic?
MB: The big thing is bonding out as many nonviolent offenders as they can. Last week, the jail released around 100 prisoners. County officials are making it clear, though, that violent offenders will remain behind bars. Currently, there are 370 inmates in the Midland Detention Center.
CM: And so what is Ector County doing to prepare for the coronavirus?
MB: It doesn’t seem like a lot on the decrease in the inmate population front. As of last week, they had over 600 inmates at the county’s facility. There were some talks about bonding out individuals who may be especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. But a jail official told me most of the inmates are going to stay put until their cases are resolved. They do have cells that are made specifically to quarantine infected inmates. And Ector County has a full-time medical staff, which, by the way, so does Midland. Guards and nurses are screening incoming prisoners. But Ector County so far hasn’t shown the same urgency of decreasing its population as Midland County.
CM: Did any of the people you spoke with, did they have thoughts on those orders that were released over the weekend from Governor Greg Abbott? And those orders limit who can be released from jails — did anyone you spoke with have any thoughts on that?
MB: Yeah, the governor released a few orders and I’m going to really just focus on the big one, which is limiting who can be granted personal bond by a judge to individuals with no history of violence or who have been arrested for a non-violent crime. I spoke to James McDermott about the governor’s new restrictions. He says it’s unfair. Basically, anyone with money who has been arrested for a violent crime or has a history of violence can still bail themselves out of jail. McDermott believes the governor is basically targeting poor people with this policy who don’t have the money to pay for their freedom while richer inmates who have done similar crimes can walk. He also says this new policy will make it harder for jails to decrease their population and put more people at risk of getting the coronavirus.