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Harris County Officials Evaluate 2,000 Inmates for Release Amid COVID Crisis


January 20, 2021

By Natalie Cook Clark

Some Harris County officials are raising concerns as the county jail reaches capacity. In order to keep inmates, jailers, and their families safe, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is asking for help.

The Second Largest U.S. Jail Reaches Capacity

The Harris County Jail, the second largest jail in the U.S., is currently housing over 9,000 inmates, a number that Sheriff Ed Gonzalez describes as “busting at the seams.”

About 2,000 people (detention officers, medical staff, support staff, etc.) work in the Harris County jail, and its official authorized capacity is 10,566.

“Because of COVID-19 quarantines and other factors, we are unable to accommodate that number of people at this time,” says Jason Spencer, Public Affairs Director, Harris County Sheriff’s Office. “The current population is 9,043, and we have usable space for 90 men and 85 women.”

This overcrowding does not allow the space or opportunity to properly social distance during the pandemic. Sheriff Gonzalez stresses that risks not just those awaiting trial, but the employees and their families.

"I am concerned for the staff that works inside the jail. My employees that have to operate the system putting them in harm's way," says Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.

Spencer says there are currently 58 people in the jail with active COVID-19 infections.

Federal judge Lee H. Rosenthal agrees with the Sheriff’s concerns. Last week, she addressed the issue during a civil rights case that was held via Zoom. She is calling for the review and release of 2,000 inmates to alleviate the crowding at the jail, calling it a potential “killing fields.”

Why the overcrowding?

For a while, the area court system has been operating in a backlog. The problem peaked after Hurricane Harvey and now again with the COVID-19 pandemic. This backlog means people are staying in the jail longer waiting for trial.

“The number of people booked into the jail in 2020 was 25% lower than the number booked into jail in 2019, however, we still finished 2020 with about 300 more people in jail than were there at the end of 2019,” says Spencer. “The average person booked into the jail now spends more than 7 months there just waiting for their cases to be adjudicated.”

Sheriff Gonzalez has reached out to the courts and judges asking them to consider releasing non-violent offenders. This could be done through lowering bail bonds, an issue that often is met with harsh criticism, and through pretrial or post-conviction releases.

“This isn’t anything new,” says Andy Kahan with Crime Stoppers Houston. But COVID-19 has given the system a reason to get these offenders out of jail.”

Katy Felons Charged of Violent Crimes, Even Murder Are Out

Kahan worries about dangerous felons getting out. History gives him reason for concern.

“Take Katy resident Jacque Adams,” says Kahan. “We featured him in 2019 on our top 10 wanted for human trafficking. He was in custody but now is a fugitive again.”

Other Katy felons have been released due to such bonds.

On February 9, 2019 Dietrich Thomas shot and killed a 29-year-old Katy father of two in a road rage incident off of Morton Ranch Rd. At the time of his initial hearing, Thomas was denied bond because he was out on bond for a previously charged violent crime.

Thomas was released on a low bond this January, issued from Judge Jason Luong, the Harris County 185th District Court Judge. Records show that since his release out on bond Thomas has violated his conditions multiple times.

Sheriff Gonzalez took to Twitter to remind followers how he has no authority on this issue.

“Again, I remind you, I have no authority in setting bond, nor determining who comes in/out of jail,” says Sheriff Gonzalez.

Courts are currently evaluating inmates for release.

“Those concerned can contact their elected officials, County Commissioners, Constable, State Representative, Senator, and Governor,” says Kahan.


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