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Health care, religious leaders join call to reduce jail population amid Covid-19 threat

Friday, April 17, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

Leaders in the local health care and religious communities have forwarded a pair of letters to city and county officials calling for early release of more prisoners from the Travis County jail in hopes of preventing the spread of Covid-19 among inmates and staff.

Several of the dozens of signees of the two letters participated in an online press conference Thursday, pointing out that roughly three-quarters of the inmates now in jail are awaiting trail and could be eligible for personal recognizance bonds that would allow them to return to civilian life while waiting for their cases to be decided.

Over the past month, Travis County criminal justice officials have already taken steps to reduce the jail population by granting bonds to more than 500 prisoners, with the current population standing at just over 1,600 as of last week. The pace of release appears to have slowed in recent weeks, in part because of a March 29 order from Gov. Greg Abbott that prevented judges from releasing certain classes of inmates. Abbott’s order is in effect but is being challenged by groups including the ACLU and Civil Rights Corps.

The proponents of early release want nonviolent prisoners and those with acute health risks to be prioritized in future releases.

“Across the country in our nation’s jails, much like the country at large, we’re seeing positive responses and disastrous responses. We’re seeing jails quickly lowering their populations and avoiding outbreaks and we’re seeing jails try to operate as usual, now looking at infection rates that dwarf Wuhan, China, New York City and Lombardo, Italy,” said Chris Harris, campaign coordinator for Texas Appleseed and one of the organizers of Thursday’s campaign.

“Locally our system has admirably lowered the jail population almost 25 percent from over 2,100 to 1,600 as of today, but racial disparities appear to have worsened and the progress on release has stalled in recent weeks, due in part to Gov. Abbott’s order restricting release.”

Doctors and other health care professionals participating in the effort want prisoners remaining in jail to have easy access to soap and sanitizer to slow the spread of contagion. They also asked for robust education for those released on how to avoid infection, along with access to safe housing and mental health services.

Currently no inmates or jail staff in Travis County have tested positive for Covid-19, preventing the rapid spread that has occurred among jail populations in Dallas and Harris counties.

Kelly Shoenfelt, pastor of Servant Church in East Austin, said local leaders need to resume the early release steps they began taking in March when the coronavirus first became the area’s top public health issue.

“I am grateful there have been steps taken to reduce the jail population in the last few weeks, but that seems to have stalled out and … I want to continue to ask and implore our leaders to take steps to allow vulnerable populations to be released from prison, especially those who are at a high risk of life-threatening illnesses by staying in the prisons in the conditions at the jail currently,” she said. “That also includes other staff, chaplains, guards and nurses, and other persons inside the jail we want to make sure are cared for.”

Sherwynn Patton, founder of Life Anew Restorative Justice, called for prisoners to have remote video access to legal and ministry services so they can stay connected to the outside world while visitation options are limited.

“Right now we’re practicing social distancing, but in the jail population it’s impossible to practice social distancing, especially if you’re in a situation where there’s some crowding going on,” he said. “Those who are nonviolent and those who have health challenges such as HIV or diabetes or any other medical issue that leaves them open to Covid-19, we’re asking for them to be released.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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