County jail population stays steady, despite coronavirus’ outsized spread among the incarcerated

MARFA — At last count, the Presidio County Jail has 36 inmates, a pretty typical number. Just one of them — a county inmate on an aggravated assault charge — is waiting for county court.

The rest are being held for federal authorities like the U.S. Marshals Service for crimes involving drugs and illegal entry, said Gracie Parras, the jail administrator for Presidio County.

Parras says the number of federal detainees is going down. But for now, they still represent a vast majority of inmates at the local jail.

The inmates share cells, but the jail is still trying to take other precautions, Parras said. Workers disinfect cells an extra time each day, and attorneys are screened before they visit.

In an interview earlier this month, Sandy Wilson, the district attorney for the tri-county area, was working to get bonds or temporary releases for nonviolent inmates. It’s part of “compassionate release” efforts seen across the country to keep local jails from becoming vectors for coronavirus — though both Wilson and Parras stressed that most nonviolent local inmates were getting bonded out even before the pandemic.

But while local authorities are taking precautions, higher-ups, from the governor’s office to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have been much slower to release inmates, if they have at all. With a slew of new lawsuits this month, detainees and inmates have become a flashpoint in debates over how government authorities can and should respond to the coronavirus.

First, there are inmates in immigrant detention centers. CBP last month told The Big Bend Sentinel that it is adjudicating some cases “in the field” — a process that keeps undocumented migrants out of detention centers but, on the flip side, also fast-tracks deportations.

Federal authorities have deported around 20,000 people since February, The New York Times reported last week — including some who later tested positive for coronavirus in their destination countries. CBP did not respond to a follow-up request this week to clarify its coronavirus policies.

But these new policies have done little to reduce numbers at already-packed detention centers — and coronavirus has already popped up among detained immigrants. At a detention center near Miami, federal authorities acknowledged in court filings this week that more than half of the roughly 600 detainees had been exposed to coronavirus.

And in Texas, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing federal officials in an effort to release medically vulnerable inmates from a facility near Houston. The lawsuit, filed earlier this month, lists at least four detainees that the ACLU says are at a heightened risk of getting very sick or dying from COVID-19 — including a 58-year-old with diabetes, asthma and sleep apnea who has been detained since February, and a 37-year-old with breathing issues who has been in detention since last August.

“Detention centers like the Montgomery Processing Center cannot adequately protect the lives of those like our clients,” Andre Segura, the ACLU’s legal director in Texas, said in a statement. “There is no way to practice social distancing in a detention center, and they do not have access to face masks or even regular access to basic hygiene.”

“Limiting the number of people held in jails is critical to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak at MPC and the surrounding community,” he added.

That isn’t the only ACLU coronavirus lawsuit filed this month involving inmates in Texas. The organization is also suing Governor Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton over what the group says is an “illegal executive order” hindering the ability of local judges to enact compassionate-release measures.

The case centers on Houston — where activists and legal groups have been fighting for years to overturn cash-bail rules that keep defendants in jail before trial because they can’t make cash bonds.

During a coronavirus in Houston, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo ordered hundreds of local defendants released. But state orders preventing releases — as well as an order from a district judge — halted those efforts.

That’s the crux of the ACLU lawsuit. The organization argues that Governor Abbott’s order stymieing compassionate releases is a violation of state disaster rules and the Texas Constitution.

“Local governments across the State have sought to implement the recommendations of public health experts, not only for the general population, but also for those in their custody,” the ACLU argued in their initial lawsuit, from earlier this month. But Abbott’s executive order “frustrates these efforts and unlawfully undercuts the authority of judges and the Legislature,” the suit argues.

Fights like this go well beyond Texas, though. In a case involving an outbreak at a federal prison in North Carolina, a judge over the weekend demanded that an inmate immediately be released.

The Bureau of Prisons had already approved the inmate’s release — and yet he was still in prison, because federal prison rules required inmates to be quarantined together for 14 days. That timeline can apparently be extended indefinitely if one or more of the quarantined inmates tests positive during that time.

Noting that these quarantine rules effectively created new disease vectors, the judge called the rules “illogical,” “self-defeating” and a “danger” to inmates and local communities. She ordered prison officials to release him “immediately.”