An Inside Look at Texas Jails During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Art drawn by Donnie P., who’s housed in the Eastland County Jail, and sent to Texas Jail Project.

Shedding Light, a project spearheaded by Texas Jail Project, provides a glimpse behind the walls as the virus spread.

By Matt Keyser
National Partnership for Pretrial Justice

“To whom it may concern,” the letter began. “My name is Stephanie and I’m 35 years old. I’ve been under the custody of the Harris county jail for 14 months.

“My anxiety is really high. I don’t sleep. I maybe get 2 hours of sleep. I have asked and requested numerous times to have a medicine adjusted. … I have made so many requests that a nurse came and told me that if I didn’t stop [the] request that the Dr. said he was just take [sic] me off all medication.

“I’m always shaking, have anxiety and even find it hard to breath sometimes and still get no help.

“I’ve been having the worst experience here in Harris county jail.”

Another letter from Donnie P., housed in the Eastland County Jail, reads: “I have been here at the Eastland County Jail since 4-20-20. My charges are UUMV [unauthorized use of a motor vehicle] – no violence, no weapons, no drugs. We have been requesting PR bonds, bond reductions, masks, coronavirus tests, and have got no relief.

“There is (sic) no visits. No courts. Basically this jail doesn’t offer much, but since the pandemic, it has been even worse. And I don’t think that having people in these jails, especially with nonviolent charges, is humane.

“Since the state has had to shut down we are just wasting away.”

The letters are among dozens of stories shared with the Texas Jail Project that highlight the conditions of people housed in Texas jails during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Nearly all letters or phone calls address horrid situations inside the jails; the lack of personal protective equipment, such as masks, and inability to socially distance due to overcrowding, both of which medical experts said are vital to slowing the spread of the virus; and jail staff who ignored their pleas for help.

“When it was officially announced last March that they would be shutting down visitation in all jails and indefinitely suspending jail inspections, we got really worried because families visiting is one of the ways we hear about what’s happening in the jails,” said Krishnaveni Gundu, the executive director and co-founder of the Texas Jail Project. “We started taking collect calls from jails because we were worried about losing any information or data, and we knew there was going to be a lot of chaos in the jails. We were really concerned about how none of that would get documented.”

After Texas Jail Project, a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of people in county jails, amassed a collection of personal stories, its leaders began asking what could they do with them. They decided to partner with Civil Rights Corps and Zealous to launch the project Shedding Light. (Civil Rights Corps, a non-profit that fights back against injustices in the legal system, and Zealous, an organization led by public defenders to end mass punishment, are both NPPJ partners.)

Shedding Light is an interactive website that allows people to hear phone calls and read letters first hand from people stuck in jail. Many stories are a cry for help from those who don’t have the money to pay for their release, watching the COVID-19 virus spread through their jail and fearing for their health and life.

Elizabeth Rossi, a senior attorney for Civil Rights Corps, said it’s crucial to get these stories into the public so people understand what’s happening behind jail walls.

“The people that we as a society are arresting and jailing are human beings. They have children who they love and want to be with. They have jobs they want to go to. They have bills they’re trying to pay. Houses they want to live in,” Rossi said. “They’re human beings who have lives who are now being trapped in cages in the middle of a deadly pandemic, who are scared and traumatized and subject to incredible forms of mental and physical violence.”

 


“Please hear our pleas for help and don’t let this ongoing problem continue.”

– Garry B, Eastland County 


 

REDUCING JAIL POPULATION

County jails in Texas largely house unconvicted people who are awaiting trial or those whose convictions carry short sentences—days- or weeks-long sentences compared to years-long sentences that usually land people in prison.

At the beginning of the pandemic, some Texas leaders tried to reduce their jail populations by releasing some people who were not yet convicted of a crime. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, whose county oversees the state’s largest jail, called the jail a “ticking time bomb.” She asked Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to compile a list of people who were charged with certain non-violent crimes and had no prior violent criminal histories who could be eligible for release.

Of the nearly 8,000 people jailed in Harris County at the time, more than 71 percent had not yet been convicted of a crime. (This trend is consistent across the state. Of the nearly 40,000 people jailed in Texas, an estimated 70 percent are detained pretrial, meaning they have not been convicted, according to the Texas Judicial Council. The majority are detained because they cannot come up with the bail money for release.)

“The jail population is at risk of being the epicenter of a catastrophe,” Hidalgo said last March.

Yet shortly after Hidalgo announced her plan, Gov. Greg Abbott blocked the releases and then went even further, signing an executive order barring the release of people from jails on personal bonds, which require no money for release. Those same people could be freed as long as they paid money for bail, making it appear the governor’s executive order privileged money over public safety and public health. Advocates were quick to decry it.

“The edict is dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic, and a flagrantly unconstitutional attempt to infringe fundamental constitutional rights,” Alec Karakatsanis, the executive director of Civil Rights Corps, told the Houston Chronicle after Abbott signed the order.

 


“Every time I go to medical asking for a COVID-19 test because my head hurts, cold chills all the time, can’t b[reathe], the doctor tells me I’m ok, it’s just a cold and it’s all in my head, I’m overthinking it.”

– Marvin D., Victoria County


 

‘I WAS LITERALLY STARVING’

Abbott’s order ultimately left people jailed, such as one woman who was four months pregnant who was put in isolation in the Brazoria County Jail. In a letter to the Texas Jail Project, the woman wrote: “A lot of inmates have gotten COVID-19 and we are unable to social distance, putting us at risk. Yesterday, for example … we were forced to sleep with sewage water in our dorm all night, with no way to clean it up. Only blankets to soak up the dirty water.

“Also, back in November 2020, I was put in isolation, with false accusations, and I was 4 months pregnant. The jail would not feed me anything extra and I was literally starving. My baby passed away due to jail negligence.”

Gundu, with Texas Jail Project, said she was deeply disappointed with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which she said for weeks had ignored her pleas to intervene. Ultimately, the jail commission did inspect the jail and found it non-compliant with state standards.

“But it doesn’t do anything, because finding a jail non-compliant doesn’t give them any more teeth to fine them or truly hold them accountable,” Gundu said. “For the most part, we’re just creating a paper trail.”

Gundu and the rest of the Shedding Light team hope that paper trail, along with the powerful stories they’ve collected, will eventually lead to policies that reduce county jail populations and divert resources into community-based public health.

There’s been an outpouring of support from people nationwide. Gundu said Texas Jail Project has received over $160,000 from private donors aimed at providing money for commissary, phone cards, or basic necessities for those behind bars. The non-profit organization has also received a $100,000 grant to provide direct aid to families of incarcerated individuals who were also impacted by the winter storm in February.

“The response after the storm was very clear: This is something that people want to support,” Gundu said. “The other power of being able to tell the stories is to gather some concrete support for moving resources from outside the walls to within the walls.”

That support goes beyond monetary help, as well. Rossi with CRC said it’s vital people be informed about the decisions their elected leaders make, especially on the local level where funding for police and jail budgets is decided every year.

“If jails and police actually made our community safe, we would have the safest country in the world,” Rossi said. “The most powerful action people can take is to make sure that we don’t allow these systems to grow anymore, that we start to shrink them as soon as possible, and take money and resources from those systems and divert them into community based-supports.”

 

To see more stories, visit the Shedding Light website.