Sheriff: Jail taking steps to prevent COVID-19 from taking hold

The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office has released nearly 400 low-level non-violent inmates and is prohibiting visitors, among other efforts, to keep COVID-19 out of the county jail, Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra explained.

“First of all, we have implemented some new policies at the jail to help minimize the risk of spread of the COVID-19 virus in our jail,” Guerra said. “Number one, we have suspended all visitations with the inmates, all public visitations. We are allowing them some added telephone time at no cost to the inmate.”

And in conjunction with decisions made by the Board of Judges on March 16, 384 people have been released on reduced bonds, personal recognizance bonds and on court-ordered releases, Guerra said.

“It was again to reduce the inmate population in case there was the spread of the COVID-19 in our facility. It would be a lot more manageable,” he said.

On March 1, the jail reported that its total population was 1,232 inmates, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Guerra stressed that there was criteria for release and that those who were released were not considered violent.

That move freed up space in the jails “24-man tanks.”

Instead of two dozen people being held in those spaces, now eight people are being held.

As for those who are released, the jail is only releasing inmates during daylight hours because of the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.

“We’ve suspended release of inmates between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.,” Guerra said.

People will still be able to pick up their family members during the shelter-in-place order, which takes effect at 11:59 p.m. Thursday.

“We encourage family members to come pick them up during the daylight hours,” the sheriff said.

Guerra also said staff in his office have experience with contagious diseases and there is existing infrastructure in the jail, including negative-pressure and isolation cells for any inmates who may show symptoms.

There are no cases inside the jail, Guerra said, adding that they did have one person who was showing a high fever who was monitored.

“It turned out he had a normal flu,” Guerra said.

Additionally, all essential visitors, which include delivery drivers and attorneys, as well as staff and all officers are being screened and having their temperatures taken when they go to the jail, the sheriff said.

Authorities are also using fogging equipment with a specialized solution and are spraying empty tanks down with the disinfectant on a daily basis.

“We’re also doing that with our law enforcement buildings we have plans to close. There’s no training, so we closed down some of our other buildings,” Guerra said. “We do have a plan in place, if needed, to minimize some of our (staff)…All of my staff is essential, but in case we have to do a rotation, we’ve got plans in place if need be.”

The sheriff’s department is also working with the county’s IT department to get video-conferencing up and running.

“We will soon be holding court through video-conferencing,” Guerra said. “So we are working out the kinks so these judges can start holding court through video-teleconferencing so we don’t have to take inmates to the courthouse.”