With COVID-19 pandemic affecting every corner of the world, most of Texas prison population, new and current, is affected by shifting events and simple need to stay away in prisons.
The pandemic put additional stress on law enforcement and legal branch, all working together to find solutions and make everyone safe as possible.
Texas Tribune reported on recent developments. Even though some of the issues related to overcrowding were actually present before, the pandemic simply amplified the voices looking for solutions.
Jails mostly house those who are legally presumed innocent or are serving short sentences, and they tend to have a rapid turnover rate. With fewer inmates moving into the courts to either be acquitted and set free or found guilty and sent to prison, officials in some counties are scrambling to keep their populations below maximum capacity even if arrests are down.
With a lack of beds at its oft-packed jail already, Hidalgo County has resorted to housing hundreds of inmates in neighboring counties or at a nearby private, federal lockup. In the state’s most populous county, Harris County, the sheriff has pleaded for help from a federal judge to make room at the “bursting” jail in Houston, where six inmates and two employees have died from COVID-19.
As some counties sought to reduce the numbers in their disease-prone jails shortly after the coronavirus first swept through the state, Gov. Greg Abbott signed an emergency order restricting the release of inmates accused or previously convicted of violent crimes if they can’t pay bail. Similar defendants with cash can still walk free.
Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra said his jail is often overcrowded, and he has tried to expand the jail capacity for years. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem, with nearly 400 county inmates currently housed in a private federal jail or in other counties. Still, the courts have to look to reduce bond amounts or somehow make some space, he said.
“My staff [is] talking with the district attorney’s office and the judges saying, ‘Can we reduce the bond for this individual so we can make room for another individual?’” Guerra said. “Because we’re … having to compete with other county jails for bed spaces.”
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