When the COVID-19 virus struck the United States, 15 people in a Houston area jail penned a group March 26 letter to officials informing them of the catastrophe that could occur if they didn’t reduce the incarceration numbers.
Bail reform has taken center stage in Texas, the legislative process is changing the meaning of What is A Bail Bond. The Houston Chronicle first reported the letter from inmates at the jail overlooking Buffalo Bayou, which vocalized public health experts’ warnings that jails and prisons were “Petri dishes” for the possible fatal virus. With the high turnover jails tend to have, inmates are not the only ones at risk; the community is also at risk when they are released.
According to inmates, jail officials were taking some precautions to prevent COVID-19 spread but were not sufficient enough. Their claim that social distancing and cleanliness was not possible in jails.
The letter read that given the current state of circumstances, people have begun to panic and the thought of dying in jail scares them. The signers’ names were withheld for their protection for fear of retaliation.
Texas Governor Issues Executive Order Over Prisoner Release During Covid-19 Crisis
Not even a week later, after the letter, the jail reported the first positive case of coronavirus in an inmate. This happened to coincide with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s issuance of an executive order hindering jails from releasing non-violent offenders back into the general population. San Antonio and Houston sheriffs worked tirelessly to decrease their inmate population to protect inmates, employees and the public.
However, Abbott’s orders meant officials had to keep disadvantaged people behind bars – those unable to afford bail. This meant judges were unable to issue personal bonds to more indigent defendants. Personal bonds are no cost-bonds involving other release conditions so long as the defendant hasn’t committed a violent crime previously (no matter how long ago).
The governor’s office executive order was somewhat vague, calling it only a response to anxieties of inmates’ release due to COVID-19 of people who are considered dangerous to society.
With more and more Texas jails’ inmates testing positive for the virus, state officials fought to restrict the kind of inmates judges could set free. However, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the governor’s order was his attempt to impede Harris County’s lawsuit on bail reforms. Paxton is currently out of jail on personal bonds for three felony charges – something he’s had for five years.