Coronavirus death in Harris County jail highlights possible overcrowding
After a coronavirus related death in a Harris County jail, public attention turned to the possible issue of overcrowding.
64-year-old Preston Chaney died from COVID-19 in August 2020 while awaiting trial in Harris County Jail. After allegedly stealing meat and lawn equipment, Chaney spent three and a half months in jail because he was unable to pay his $1,000 bond.
Chaney’s death recently garnered the attention of national politicians such as Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and sparked discussion over the factors leading to congested jails.
The outrage surrounding Chaney’s death has specifically highlighted the growing population of pretrial detainees in the Harris County Jail amid the pandemic.
“Preston’s case is tragic. He died in the jail of COVID-19 because his lawyer refused to fight for him. But his case is just one of many,” said senior attorney at Civil Rights Corps Elizabeth Rossi.
With Chaney’s several underlying conditions including diabetes and heart disease, he was at a high risk for catching the virus in the overcrowded jail.
As of Feb. 23, the Harris County Jail population is 9,118 people. Of the total population, 7,998 are pretrial detainees.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards’ recent COVID-19 report from Feb. 22 shows 68 inmates in the county jail have an active positive test result. 1,151 inmates have been quarantined, and there have been six deaths due to the virus.
Multiple cases have been found where people end up serving more time in pretrial detention than their ultimate sentence, Rossi said.
One such case is an unhoused man named E.A. who was charged with robbery for allegedly stealing a soda and pushing the shop owner with his hand.
E.A.’s bond had been set to $20,000. His public defender said he would be unable to pay the amount required for his release.
E.A. spent 147 days in pretrial detention and on his court date, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 100 days in jail. Because he had already served more than his sentence before he had been convicted, E.A. was released.
Many are stuck in jail because they are unable to pay money bail, Rossi said.
“If they had enough cash, they could walk out of the jail,” Rossi said. “Instead, these individuals are languishing in cages … because they are poor.”
Israel Iglesias’ recent death is a case that puts a spotlight on this reality. Iglesias was an unhoused 57-year-old man who allegedly sold 0.6 grams of a controlled substance to undercover police officers in October 2020.
Iglesias was arrested and charged four months later in February. The judge set his bond at $1,500 cash and he was unable to pay the amount before his death on Feb. 9 in the jail.
“Pretrial detention causes devastating harms … Research shows that just a few days in jail can cause a person’s life to unravel. They can lose their job, their home, their car, miss student loan or child support payments, and even lose custody of their children,” Rossi said.
“People detained pretrial are more likely to plead guilty, more likely to be sentenced to jail or prison and their sentences are likely to be longer.”
Initial attempts to decrease the pretrial population during the pandemic in Harris County have been rendered unsuccessful.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an order early in the pandemic to release people awaiting trial after being arrested for committing non-violent offenses. The order was overturned by an administrative felony judge.
“Judge Hidalgo’s order was a step in the right direction. The felony judges and the district attorney’s office got in the way of any meaningful efforts to reduce the jail population,” Rossi said.
The governor’s order, GA-13 , prevents those convicted or charged with violent offenses from being released from jails. It also prevents personal bonds by the Texas Code of Criminal Procedures from being issued to people with prior convictions of violent offenses, no matter how long ago it was.
“Gov. Abbott’s order GA-13 was one of the most heartless and cruel orders I could ever imagine being issued during this pandemic,” Rossi said.
The order was signed by Abbott at the beginning of the pandemic in response to county judges issuing orders similar to Hidalgo’s. GA-13 was challenged, but eventually reinstated.
Chaney was one of the many who had been denied a personal bond on the basis of GA-13.
“[Abbott] did it under the guise and the banner of public safety, even though what we’ve seen is a public safety and human rights disaster inside of the jails,” Rossi said.
Advocates like Rossi have said the solutions to the problem involve taking swift action such as challenging the bail system in a way that decreases the pretrial population, as well as issuing caseload limits for court-appointed counsel to allow for a better quality of defense for each person being represented.
“We need to shrink the criminal bureaucracy, stop investing in police, jails, and courts and start investing in systems and resources – like health, mental health, education and jobs – that allow people to flourish and live with dignity,” Rossi said.
“We need to reconceptualize how we understand harm, crime and violence (as well as) pursue strategies and interventions that actually work.”