Harris County, Texas – Today, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an emergency order to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office mandating the release of certain inmates from the Harris County Jail.
The Judge, citing COVID-19 concerns, is mandating the release of certain inmates charged with non-violent crimes.
In a statement, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez says “To be eligible for temporary release, an inmate must be charged with — but not yet convicted of — a crime that doesn’t involve violence or the threat of violence. Those charged with burglarizing homes or habitual drunk driving will be ineligible as well. Before anyone is released, prosecutors, defense attorneys, Harris County Pretrial Services, and the Harris County Justice Administration Department will review each individual case to verify the person qualifies. Outgoing inmates will be screened by medical staff to ensure they have no symptoms of COVID-19 before they leave the jail. Finally, all charges that led to these people’s incarceration will remain pending and anyone convicted will ultimately be held accountable.”
The full statement is posted below.
April 1, 2020 — Today, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office received an emergency order from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo mandating the temporary release of a narrow group of inmates with no history of violence.
To be eligible for temporary release, an inmate must be charged with — but not yet convicted of — a crime that doesn’t involve violence or the threat of violence. Those charged with burglarizing homes or habitual drunk driving will be ineligible as well. Before anyone is released, prosecutors, defense attorneys, Harris County Pretrial Services, and the Harris County Justice Administration Department will review each individual case to verify the person qualifies. Outgoing inmates will be screened by medical staff to ensure they have no symptoms of COVID-19 before they leave the jail. Finally, all charges that led to these people’s incarceration will remain pending and anyone convicted will ultimately be held accountable.
Public safety is my top priority and these releases will not compromise that duty. Even during the public health crisis of COVID-19, HCSO officers and staff bravely serve every day to keep Harris County safe. Already, 12 of my deputies and other HCSO teammates have been infected. We are caring for them, hoping for their recovery, and doing everything we can to contain the spread among staff and inmates in our custody. We have issued guidelines to maintain social distance and increased hygiene, and we are vigilantly monitoring staff and inmates at the jail. But the threat of COVID-19 is increasing exponentially in Harris County and it is only a matter of time before there is an outbreak among the 7,791 inmates in the jail. When it does occur, leading Texas Medical Center experts tell us it will spread like wildfire in the overcrowded dorms, cells, and shared bathrooms, showers, and common areas.
We have a limited and narrow window to act now to prevent a true crisis.
These are unprecedented times and call for immediate and emergency measures, such as this one. If we do not take this action, we will have a public health disaster not only for the jail, but for all of Harris County on our hands. If 25% of the jail population is diagnosed with COVID-19, that will result in infection of 2,000 people That estimate is not unrealistic — in close, contained spaces, COVID-19 spreads through the air, contaminated surfaces, and contact with people who are infected but have no symptoms. If 10% of the infected jail population requires hospitalization, that will overwhelm already stretched hospital beds and limited medical resources in the county.
This is not an abstract or remote or hyperbolic concern. We only have to look to Cook County, the jail complex in Chicago, to see the danger of waiting. In just one week, their confirmed cases exploded from just 2 to over 100 inmates and jail employees. Many more are suspected of being positive and are quarantined. New York City officials are now releasing hundreds of people from the jail to be able to contain the outbreak, but it is too late. In contrast, other places have acted sooner. Los Angeles released 1,700 people from its jail to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19. New Jersey recently released 1,000 people.
At the moment, there is only one confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Harris County jail, and we must do everything we can to keep it that way. It’s a race against time, because we already have 35 more inmates in isolation quarantine because they have COVID-19 symptoms, but haven’t received official confirmation via lab results. Releasing people who pose no documented risk to the community’s safety is a crucial step to put in place social distancing and hygiene measures inside the jail.
Right now, ensuring public health is public safety. The measures we are taking today to temporarily release people will benefit both public health and public safety in this county.
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