As COVID-19 rapidly spreads throughout the country, jail inmates are extremely vulnerable to catching this virus. When a large group of individuals is sharing resources and crammed together in confined spaces, practicing social distancing is difficult if not impossible. The Travis County Sheriff has reported zero cases in the Travis County jail system…but is that the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
In order to confirm cases, there must be testing.
How many tests have officials administered on inmates? One. Yet, they have roughly 30 inmates quarantined. Hmm…it’s awfully easy to report zero confirmed cases if you’ve administered ONLY one test to a healthy individual.
How many tests have those same officials administered to staff? 27. Yes, corrections officers, deputies, and civilian employees have been administered 27 COVID tests but only 1 on inmates. Jail officials want to assure you that inmates are given proper protection. According to the Travis County Sheriff Office, “Inmates have been provided bar soap in their cells and day rooms.”
Governor Abbott has waived all medical fees correlating to COVID-19 for all inmates in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities. It has been reported that 100 test kits are being dispersed between Travis County Jail in downtown Austin and the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle while jails in Hays and Williamson counties have 0 testing kits.
Putting this information together raises some alarming issues.
But what are jails reportedly doing to lessen the risk?
Right now, a variety of strategies are being implemented to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our jails. Currently, a population of inmates are being quarantined in the Travis County Jail system. It has been reported that 20 inmates are being monitored for coronavirus. The Travis County sheriff’s office has introduced four levels of quarantine for the jails:
- An exposed person booked into a Travis County facility will be quarantined in a single cell. All activities will be separate from others and that person will receive meals in his or her cell.
- All inmates in a unit will be quarantined if just one person is sick. When they participate in activities, they will be separate from other inmates and they will receive meals in their cell.
- If there are multiple inmates in separate areas that are sick, the whole facility will be quarantined. During the incubation period, movement to and from the facility will be minimal.
- If someone is sick and it is caught after movement between facilities, all exposed inmates will be quarantined.
Other measures being taken during this time are: sanitizing The Central Booking facility, taking the temp of each person entering the Travis County correctional area, having jail staff wearing gloves, and conducting video visits for $2.50 per visit.
In Williamson county inmates, attorneys, and staff members are going through extensive medical screening. If newly arrested people are showing symptoms of the virus, they will be sent to the hospital and have to be cleared by a doctor before going housing in the jail.
Health care officials are at Hays County Jail 24 hours a day and sanitization stations have been increased. Officials are working to provide inmates with two free phone calls a week for 30 days.
In addition to implementing strategies to reduce the risk of COVID-19 among inmates currently incarcerated, other measures are being put in place to reduce the number of individuals that enter or remain in the jails.
One such measure is an Order signed by County Judge Elisabeth Earle on behalf of all the County Court Judges in Travis County Criminal Courts. The Order is entitled “STANDING ORDER TO TEMPORARILY SUSPEND THE EXECUTION OF WARRANTS FOR CERTAIN TRAVIS COUNTY CASES”. The Order remains in effect until May 8, 2020.
The Order, which begins with the words, “In the interest of community safety….”, states that “In order to alleviate the threat of COVID-19 in County Jails, the Travis County Court at Law Judges trying criminal cases have agreed to temporarily suspend active warrants for all misdemeanor offenses except for the following cases:”
- Unlawful Restraint (Penal Code 20.02)
- Violation of Protective Order (Penal Code 25.07)
- Unlawful Carrying of Weapons (Penal Code 46.02)
- Assault with Bodily Injury, Assault Family Violence, Assault Dating Violence, Indecent Assault and Terroristic Threat.
Consistent with the Order, the Travis County Sheriff’s office is directed to relate said Order to all law enforcement officers who request warrant confirmation so that officers are given notice to not bring low-level offenders to the jail during the pendency of the Order.
It is important to note that warrants are not being recalled. They are only being suspended. Which means come May 8, 2020, the Order will either be extended or lifted. If it’s lifted, anyone with an outstanding warrant will again be fair game for an arrest.
For those people who are arrested for felony warrants or new felony offenses, District Judge Brenda Kennedy executed an Order which became effective on March 23, 2020, relating to personal bonds.
The Order, entitled “STANDING ORDER FOR PERSONAL BONDS ON CERTAIN FELONY CASES IN THE TRAVIS COUNTY DISTRICT COURTS”. The Order states that all people charged in Travis County with either a State Jail or third-degree felony offense listed in the Order shall be eligible to post a personal bond (with some exceptions).
Those offenses eligible for a personal bond include the following offenses (if charged as a State Jail or 3rd-degree felony):
- Possession of a controlled substance
- Delivery of a controlled substance
- Possession of Marijuana
- Other state jail felony drug charges (ie. Obtaining a controlled substance by fraud);
- Credit card or debit card abuse
- Criminal mischief (unless fire or a deadly weapon used)
- False statement to obtain property or credit
- Fraudulent destruction, removal or concealment of writing
- Interference with railroad property
- Securing execution of a document by deception
- Tampering with a governmental record
- Tampering or attempting to tamper with physical evidence
- Theft and theft of services
It should be noted that some of the above charges can be charged at a higher level than a State Jail felony or third-degree felony depending on the particular circumstances of the case. For example, if the amount of a controlled substance makes a delivery of a controlled substance a second-degree felony, the individual arrested is not automatically eligible for a personal bond.
There are also numerous situations delineated in the Order which “constitute an exception to the automatic granting of a personal bond.”
Some examples include:
- A person who is arrested on a new offense AND is on any form of pre-trial release for other charges.
- The arrested person has a warrant for failure to appear or bond forfeiture.
- The person failed to appear or had a bond forfeiture in the last 12 months.
- The person had been motioned off in the same case.
- The person has a parole revocation warrant.
- The person has other holds (ie. ICE hold or out of county hold).
- The person has related misdemeanor charges in which a personal bond is not being granted.
- The crime has a hate crime enhancement.
- Pre-trial services or Travis County Booking staff observed behavior by the person that would indicate they are an imminent danger to themselves or others.
- The magistrate believes, based on credible evidence, that granting a personal bond would constitute an unreasonable threat to the safety or property of another person.
Accordingly, there are many exceptions to the “automatic” personal bond directive, and the magistrate judge still has discretion (if he/she believes, based on credible evidence, that a personal bond would create a threat to others) to deny a personal bond.
However, just because a person isn’t automatically granted a personal bond based on the Order discussed above, it does not mean that it is impossible for them to get a personal bond. Since a personal bond requires the authorization of a judge, hiring an attorney who has built strong relationships with judges and prosecutors will be someone’s best chance of getting a person out of jail.
No one wants to be stuck in jail even in the best of circumstances. Right now, being in jail seems to put one at even greater risk. We have been working around the clock to find avenues to get our clients released from jail as quickly as possible. If you have a loved one in jail, please reach out and we’ll help you understand the options. We will do everything we can to keep your family members safe and free.