The coronavirus outbreak in Texas prisons and ICE detention centers is preventing inmates at the Kerr County jail from being released to state and federal custody, said the local sheriff this week.
Along with more than 175 local jail bookings since April 1, this backlog results in more cost to the county and less room at the jail for quarantining inmates. If the Sheriff’s Office is not able to adequately separate inmates to ensure they don’t have coronavirus, the county could be liable for millions of dollars in medical and legal fees, said Kerr County Sheriff W.R. “Rusty” Hierholzer during a May 18 meeting with the commissioners’ court.
To add insult to injury, the Texas Department of Corrections is no longer reimbursing counties for costs associated with holding inmates waiting to go to prison. Usually, the state reimburses counties that hold such inmates for more than 45 days.
“TDC’s closed,” Hierholzer said during the meeting.
He cited some grim statistics from the TDC system: 1,427 inmates infected with coronavirus, 582 infected staff members, 27 deaths and 43,185 inmates on lockdown.
The inability of the county to release parole violators — they can’t legally be released without the state’s permission — led to more than $7,000 in costs associated with providing one such inmate with medical care in Bexar County, the Sheriff said.
Another inmate had to spend a week in ICU at Peterson Regional Medical Center, Hierholzer said. As of May 18, the county hadn’t received the bill for that care. Per the county’s indigent health program, some costs are reimbursable by the state.
“We are mandated to do this, we have no choice and we are not being funded,” said County Judge Rob Kelly during the meeting.
Kelly is tasked with proposing a budget that minimizes the expected deficit while maintaining minimum county services in the midst of an economic downturn and unforeseen costs associated with infection prevention measures.
During a May 4 meeting, Hierholzer said he’s already spent several thousand dollars for disinfectant and a “couple thousand more” on computer equipment and cameras to enable remote court hearings from the jail.
“If we have an outbreak in that jail when we start moving these people back and forth, it could blow up on us, I’m just saying,” Kelly said during the meeting. “We are about to go through a very critical transition when we open the courthouse back up for jury trials, I’m just telling you. Cross your fingers and say your prayers. It’s that serious.”
Kerr County Precinct 2 Commissioner Tom Moser called all this “a mess” and Kelly warned of even more trouble ahead once more in-person court hearings begin next month. With such hearings come the potential for infection, although a plan being devised by local judges — at the state’s behest — is pending that’s designed to reduce the risk. But the measures that may be called for in the plan — frequent disinfection of courtrooms, temperatures are taken, screening questions, mandatory social distancing — also entail a cost in time and resources.
Melvin “Rex” Emerson Jr., 198th district judge, was on-hand at the May 18 meeting to discuss elements of the proposed operating plan for reducing infections in courtrooms. Emerson revealed that the infection prevention measures only will apply to courtrooms — not to the hallways and courtrooms on court days, as officials had previously thought. In the courtrooms there will be tissues, face masks, sanitizer and other resources, plexiglass screens, enforced social distancing and enforced maximum occupancies, Emerson said. The docket will be further slowed by the requirement that attorneys and clients must also maintain at least 6 feet of distance between one another; meaning courts will have to recess for attorney-client conferences, whereas before, whispering closely together sufficed.