The plight of inmates in Hays County Jail during the pandemic, most of whom have not been convicted of any crime, was on the minds of several people who spoke up at Commissioners Court’s recently.
The remarks came after jail officials acknowledged an outbreak of COVID-19 at the facility. Capt. Julie Villalpando said on June 23 that 36 inmates and nine correctional officers had tested positive for the highly contagious airborne virus that has sickened more than two and a half million Americans and more than 2,000 in Hays County. Two weeks later, the jail had 60 positive cases and the county had 10 fatalities.
The pandemic threatens the future of the county’s long-standing practice of outsourcing inmates to other facilities in order to stay within the population mandated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS). In April, Travis County canceled its contract to accept Hays County inmates.
The first person to speak up at the June 30 meeting was Lauren Hubele, a San Marcos resident.
“I am here to speak at a time when the veil of racial injustice is being pulled back across our country,” she said, adding that she had questioned herself about what she might be doing that condones or normalizes acts of injustice.
“I educated myself on the treatment of my neighbors and my discoveries brought me here. I learned that the majority of the Hays County Jail citizens have not been convicted of a crime.” That, she said, was “particularly ironic,” since she used to teach government in high school and, “according to the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, each and every one of us remains innocent until proven guilty.”
Hubele said she considers indigent defense the “civil rights movement of our time,” and cannot understand how the sitting commissioners did not take advantage of a grant to partially fund a public defender’s office. “I can’t imagine why that would be true. I would appreciate the opportunity to understand how each of you feel.”
Next was Gloria Salazar, who challenged the commissioners and County Judge Ruben Becerra to make an unannounced visit to the jail, which she said “seems to be its own little island.”
“I don’t want a tour, I want a surprise visit,” she said.
Salazar said she’s concerned about the number of cases of coronavirus among not only inmates but jail staff. “Staff members go into work and leave and come into our community where all of us have the opportunity to be exposed … I want to ask the county to release as many as can be released and to separate those who tested negative from those who don’t want to be tested.
Jordan Buckley of the group Mano Amiga referenced a March New York Times article that predicted county jails will be the epicenter of the pandemic.
Buckley praised the actions of district judges who ordered the release of more than 100 inmates in March but noted the jail population is “now nearly replenished with no action taken to reduce it again. Our greatest fear is the jail is going to be a test tube for the virus.”
He said two people recently released from the jail have said the facility’s expressed policies on masks are not being followed and characterized the bail bond system as geared toward the wealthy. “If you can afford the bail you can go home and elude the virus. If you can’t, you stay locked in a cage. We’re punishing poverty.”
He urged the court to support the public defender office “and let’s get people out of jail.”
Christine Terrell said she was there because “it’s clear that people of good will can no longer sit on the sidelines.” She said she was shocked to learn that most in jail have not been convicted. “We have 400-plus people on any given day sitting in jail solely because they can’t afford to post bail. I don’t know how this is even a thing.”
Terrell noted that taxpayers currently pay around $4 million annually to house inmates elsewhere, suggesting that money could be put to better use funding “programs and policies that would keep unconvicted citizens from seeing the inside of a jail.”