Coronavirus reaches jail population, risks future inmate outsourcing

COVID-19 has reached Hays County Jail and, if unchecked, could jeopardize the county’s attempts to control jail overcrowding by outsourcing inmates to other facilities.

Jail Administrator Capt. Julie Villalpando “is holding a very hot potato,” Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra said during the commissioners court’s Tuesday meeting.

Villalpando said as of Monday, 36 inmates and nine corrections officers have tested positive for the coronavirus, though none have required hospitalization. She said random temperature checks detected four inmates with “slightly elevated” temperatures and that subsequent COVID-19 testing found them positive. “Due to that, we decided to test the whole living area,” where the 36 were detected. Of them, she said, only three are showing symptoms.

“We’re taking every measure we can to keep this from our jail, but unfortunately it is among us.” She said jail staff are continuing to sanitize and conduct temperature checks while pursuing additional testing opportunities. “We’re doing everyone we can to keep it clean. We’ve provided masks. Common areas are sanitized once a day and twice a week the entire living area.”

Inmates who test positive are held separately from those who tested negatively, and those who refused to be tested are kept in still another area, Villalpando said. “It’s very fluid and changing every day as we get more information.” She also said that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards requires a daily report. “You all know how overcrowded we are. It’s hard to do social distancing.”

It’s also hard to place inmates in other facilities, she said. Hays County has been outsourcing inmates for many years because of overcrowding, and the expansion of the jail, now underway, is still months from completion.

Already, Travis County has canceled its contract allowing Hays to place inmates there and Becerra warned it could happen with contracts with other counties such as Fort Bend, Burnet, Guadalupe and Caldwell.

“At any moment any one of those could effortlessly terminate our contract,” he said. “We’re just one blink way from contracts being canceled.” He urged law enforcement “think about” alternatives to arresting people for minor offenses, as state law allows and the city of San Marcos recently mandated with its “cite and release” policy.

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