For Now, County Jail Succeeds in Keeping Out COVID-19

Law enforcement, advocates agree on need to reduce jail population

The Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle. (Image courtesy Travis County Sheriff's Office)

There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of yet among inmates in either the Travis County Jail in Downtown Austin or the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle.

This welcome information, released on March 19, came with details on the steps being taken by the Travis County Sheriff's Office to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in its facilities.

The press release noted that three inmates have been quarantined in recent days - two already have been cleared and another remains under observation.

Upon arrival at Central Booking (at the Downtown jail), arrestees are asked a series of questions recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If COVID-19 symptoms are suspected, they are then isolated and tested by doctors following Austin Public Health guidelines. If the tests come back positive, inmates will be placed away from the rest of the jail population in single-occupant cells.

Kristen Dark, spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office, said a number of the cells have negative air flow. “And that means that we can quarantine them in a way that doesn’t allow anyone else in the building to be exposed even to the air flow from that unit,” Dark said. She added that Travis County has many empty cells at present: “Our jail capacity right now is 2,975 and our current jail population is 2,033. So we have ample capacity.”

New protocol mandates that everyone entering the jail facilities - lawyers, police officers, employees, and visitors - be screened for elevated temperatures. Those with a temperature of 99.6 or higher will not be allowed in. Central Booking is also sanitizing all flat surfaces and commonly touched objects three times per shift. Hand sanitizer is available at the entrance to the jail and an extra sink has been installed for handwashing.

The Sheriff’s Office said they will be working to minimize entry to their facilities generally in the near future and will continue modifying procedures as new recommendations come down from the CDC and state and county authorities.

Social justice advocates have in the last week called attention to the unique vulnerability of prisoners living closely together in large numbers and have asked the county to release nonviolent inmates and inmates unable to raise cash bail. Advocates are also calling for an end to arrests for nonviolent misdemeanors and state jail felonies, something Travis County authorities are working to achieve, at least temporarily.

Sheriff Sally Hernandez is asking police to use greater discretion for minor offenses in order to avoid arrests and County Attorney David Escamilla is suspending the prosecution of minor nonviolent offenses. Travis County’s Justice of the Peace courts announced on March 17 that they are suspending the issuance of arrest warrants for failure to appear for traffic offenses, summonses, and cite-and-release charges until June 15. They are suspending active warrants for all Class C misdemeanor offenses until May 8.

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Criminal Justice, coronavirus, COVID-19, Travis County Jail, Sally Hernandez, David Escamilla, Travis County Correctional Complex, Kristen Dark

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