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Travis County jail treads carefully amid coronavirus

Wednesday, April 15, 2020 by Jo Clifton

In big city jails across Texas, both inmates and corrections officers are testing positive for the coronavirus. The Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday that Covid-19 infections continue to rise in the Harris County jail, with 65 employees and 49 inmates testing positive for the virus.

In the Dallas County jail, 31 inmates have tested positive, according to a report from The San Antonio Express-News also reported bad news Tuesday, with positive coronavirus tests for seven inmates, 14 deputies and four civilians, including a nurse and a maintenance worker in the Bexar County jail.

But not one inmate or corrections employee has suffered that fate in Travis County, perhaps due to the extensive precautions Travis County has taken to prevent spread of the virus. The only exception is a corrections officer who vacationed in Europe and came home ill. He did not come back to work until he tested negative for the virus, according to sheriff’s office spokesperson Kristen Dark.

Sheriff Sally Hernandez told the Austin Monitor that her office was quick to implement guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March. She said the Texas Commission on Jail Standards has recommended that other jurisdictions follow the same path as Travis County.

Dark told the Monitor, “We are so very fortunate here.” She explained that when inmates come into the system at Travis County’s central booking facility downtown, they are automatically isolated in separate cells for 10-14 days. The building in which they are housed has a special air conditioning system that is naturally suited to quarantine because it does not recirculate the air but provides each cell with its own air supply.

Inmates who are brought into the system have their temperatures taken and are asked a series of questions. Based on the answers, corrections personnel decide whether the inmate should be isolated, even if they appear to be healthy. Inmates who may appear to be ill or who refuse to answer the questions are placed in quarantine, Dark said. Either way, all the cells are single occupancy.

If the inmate does not exhibit symptoms while in isolation or quarantine, the jail staff has the confidence that they can be integrated into the general jail population. At present, there are 183 inmates in isolation.

In addition to Travis County’s physical separation of inmates, a lower number of inmates obviously means less likelihood of disease transmission. On Feb. 6, Travis County court at law judges issued a standing order to allow people charged with class A and class B misdemeanors to be preapproved for personal bonds. At the time, Covid-19 was not the crisis it is today, but decisions about allowing personal bonds have a direct effect on the number of incarcerated people.

Personal bonds allow those who have been arrested to get out of jail without posting cash bail. In all but the most serious cases, a judge will set bail, but personal bond allows people to get out of jail and go on with their lives and work with a promise to return for a court date.

The order issued by the court at law judges specifically excluded individuals charged with assault or violation of a protective order and individuals who were already out on bond, probation or parole.

On March 23, judges of Travis County’s district courts also issued their own order allowing for personal bonds in certain felony cases, “in the interest of justice and fairness for persons accused of felony crimes.” The order noted that judges had a letter from Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore stating that she did not object. None of the crimes listed as allowing the alleged offender to get personal bond involved violence or threats of violence.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order on March 29 attempting to prevent judges from releasing several types of inmates, including not only those charged with violent crimes, but anyone previously convicted of such crimes, regardless of the current charge. Travis County District Judge Lora Livingston granted a request by the American Civil Liberties Union to block that order on Friday. But on Saturday the Texas Supreme Court blocked Livingston’s order. This action does not prevent the release of any person charged with a crime, but merely prevents those who cannot pay their bail from getting out of jail.

Judge Sherry Statman, presiding judge of the Austin Municipal Court, and her colleagues are on the front lines with the jail population and the corrections officers. It is their job to advise people who have been arrested what they are charged with and what their bond is. Statman said each judge makes an independent decision about whether to grant a personal bond.

Statman pointed to a letter from Justice of the Peace Nicholas Chu, in which he stated that despite Gov. Abbott’s executive order, he “will continue to evaluate whether a defendant is granted a personal bond consistent with my practice before the issuance of the executive order. A blanket executive order prohibiting the release of certain defendants on personal bond for the sole reason of their criminal history or because of the current offense they stand accused of is inconsistent with the U.S. and Texas Constitution and does not mitigate the risk of Covid-19 or help promote the safety to the community (which includes citizens working and detained in our jails).”

Statman gave an example of a person who might be affected by the governor’s order. “If somebody 10 years ago had an assault case but since then they’ve gotten their life together and done good things but do not have a valid driver’s license,” and is then asked by a neighbor to go to the pharmacy, if that person gets pulled over and put in jail, “under the government order because there was a violent assault” 10 years ago, “they would have to stay in jail unless they could pay to get out.”

Statman said each Municipal Court judge will make his or her own decision about whether to follow the governor’s order or to evaluate each case individually as Chu outlined. “I have informed our judicial committee of this situation and Council Member Jimmy Flannigan,” who chairs the committee, “said he would support our judges.”

According to bond statistics provided by the Municipal Court, in Fiscal Year 2019, personal bonds were granted in 80 percent of cases in Travis County. In the first quarter of FY 2020, personal bond was granted in 79 percent of cases. In the second quarter of FY 2020, beginning in January, judges were granting personal bond in 81 percent of cases. That number fell to 76 percent in April through April 14, after Abbott’s order.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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