Evidence presented in a Hidalgo County criminal court hearing revealed that as of earlier this month, 106 county jail inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, 74 of them in the past month. Similar outbreaks appear to be the case in Cameron County, where new testing of all inmates and jail staff was ordered last month in response to a new spike in cases. The testing brought 398 positive results, and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards reported the death of a Cameron County inmate from the virus earlier this month.
Several inmates across the Rio Grande Valley have sought to be released from jail citing their fear of infection. That isn’t unusual; some inmates will use any premise they can to try to get out of jail. In this case, however, that fear is justifiable; outbreaks at the jails and local nursing homes have skewed infection numbers upward and contributed to the Valley’s status as one of the areas most affected by the pandemic.
Although we seem to be fighting an especially contagious virus, this outbreak isn’t unique; rather, it exposes a problem that jails and other facilities with enclosed populations face every day.
That is why many observers and civil rights advocates, when the virus was beginning to spread, called for the release of nonviolent offenders from our jails and prisons across the country. Many did, including Hidalgo County, hoping that the inmates’ chance of exposure would be reduced if they were sent home.
To be sure, any place where many people are kept in close contact raises the chances that one sick person can affect several others — schools that have started the current semester with in-class instruction are finding that out, as several children have caught COVID- 19 in recent days.
As any parent knows, that’s to be expected. During the first weeks of school, many children fall victim to everything from simple colds to head lice.
Similarly, jails constantly fight the risk of outbreaks of maladies as simple as a cold and as severe as tuberculosis.
This far into the pandemic it might be too late to release large groups of inmates into the general population, as their exposure in the jails might increase the chances that they could carry the virus out with them and reverse any progress that might have been made getting the local epidemic under control. We hope the current situation, however, raises awareness of the constant need to secure inmates’ health and safety. After all, any inmate who catches a bug — COVID-19 or anything else — while incarcerated could take that bug out into the public domain upon release. Inmate safety should concern us all.
Fortunately, after decades of tough-on-crime policies that brought punishment that often severely outweighed the crime, people in many parts of the country are beginning to rethink our system of punishment, from easing back on drug laws to reducing punishment or nonviolent offenses.
We hope such changes reflect the recognition that inmates, regardless of their crimes, are human beings whose health and safety should be secured. Neglecting their needs, after all, could affect all of us in the end.