What is the problem?
Incarceration is life threatening for any individual during a public health crisis
Health experts across the nation have said that keeping individuals in jails and in immigration detention centers endangers lives. We know that there are confirmed cases in Bexar County Jail and in immigration detention centers. We also know that people in jail are constantly dehumanized, deemed unworthy, and are never a priority for local elected officials or in our community as a whole. It is our duty to fight for the freedom and dignity of every single person that is currently caged.
Disturbingly, the Bexar County Jail and the three nearby immigration detention centers have a long history of medical neglect that has even resulted in death. In 2018, 1-year-old Mariée Juarez was denied medical care at the family detention center in Dilley, 70 miles south of San Antonio. Immediately after her release, she entered the hospital, where she eventually died.
COVID-19 has only intensified this crisis and now every individual confined in these facilities is at risk of death if no bold action is taken.
Public health experts warn that the only way to mitigate the damage of COVID-19 is social distancing, which is impossible in detention facilities. In addition, protective measures such as proper hand hygiene and sanitization of regularly-touched surfaces, are not accessible to people in jail, prison, or detention centers. Detained people are far too often denied access to cleaning products, sanitizer, and even soap. Inevitably, the virus will enter the facility and spread like wildfire to detained people, facility staff, and out into the community, affecting all of us. On-site medical care will be insufficient, and emergency cases will overwhelm our community medical facilities.
Overcriminalization has always existed in our communities
As of April 7, there were 3,100 people in Bexar County jail; around 59 percent of people are presumed innocent, and many are unable to pay bond. In addition, the San Antonio Police Department arrests an average of 14 people a day for certain low-level offenses. Unfortunately, for many immigrants, an arrest or being booked at the City Magistrate’s Office or county jail means an ICE hold and facing the threat of deportation.
A culture of mass incarceration is never the solution to address social problems such as poverty, addiction, homelessness, or the inability to work. Together, we need to keep pushing for long-term non-punitive alternatives to ensure treatment and access to services to solve these challenges. In the short-term, the COVID-19 crisis demands that local authorities do everything in their power to reduce arrests, reduce the jail population and strongly advocate against immigration detention and deportations.
What are the local solutions?
To: ICE Field Office Director Daniel Bible and the Office of Refugee Resettlement
Several recent lawsuits demand the release of people in detention in several states, including Texas. Federal judges have ordered the release of people in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, California, New York, and Massachusetts. ICE has also paroled people in Colorado.
- Release all people from ICE detention. ICE detention is inhumane and unnecessary at all times, and is especially deadly in the midst of a pandemic. Allowing people to continue with their legal processes outside of detention is essential for public health. We demand that ICE immedetely release all detained adults and families from the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, the Karnes County Family Residential Center in Karnes City and the South Texas Processing Center in Pearsall.
- Cease all local ICE enforcement in the San Antonio area. ICE enforcement terrorizes our communities in Bexar County and beyond. It is particularly unconscionable that during this time of heightened vulnerability, ICE continues to target immigrant community members. We demand that ICE suspend all immigration enforcement activities so our communities are not living in fear of arrest, detention, or deportation during this global pandemic. This includes arrests in homes, at clinics or hospitals, places of work, public areas, and on any mode of transportation. Fear is likely to prevent people from seeking testing and treatment, further harming public health for the entire community.
- Stop issuing new ICE detainers and lift the current ICE detainers placed on individuals at Bexar County Jail. Transferring people from jail to ICE custody only puts those individuals and all those who are incarcerated at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Our immigrant community deserves to be with their family members, that will care for their health and wellbeing, not in jails and detention centers.
- Release children in ORR shelters to family members. Almost all “unaccompanied minors” who arrive at the US-Mexico border have family members waiting to receive them here in the United States. Ensuring children can get to their family members as quickly as possible will keep all communities healthier and safer. We demand that all the children at the nine ORR facilities in San Antonio be immediately released to their families or sponsors and continue their cases outside of detention.
- Support halting all in-person operations of the San Antonio and Pearsall Immigration Courts. Detained respondents at ICE and ORR facilities, attorneys, judges and court staff are putting themselves at greater risk if they continue to show up in person for hearings. Courts should facilitate alternatives to in-person hearings that ensure equitable access and due process for all respondents.
Decarcerate Bexar County
To: Chief William McManus and the San Antonio Police Department, Sheriff Javier Salazar and the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, Bexar County Commissioners Court, Bexar County District Court Judges and District Attorney Joe Gonzales.
Issue a moratorium on all arrests and new bookings. All law enforcement officers in Bexar County must only pursue a custodial arrest as an absolute last resort. Law enforcement officers should use decarceral alternatives to arrest, including warnings, pre-arrest diversion opportunities and citations, and utilize community-based resources and programs available to reroute individuals to appropriate local treatment programs and services, if appropriate. The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office must also halt all new bookings, including any arrest pertaining to the County’s “Stay at Home” orders, and other arrests made by other law agencies in the county. We demand that law enforcement agencies ensure officers pursue alternatives to arrests that limit unnecessary contact with the public, and keep people out of dangerous detention conditions.
Immediately provide a safe environment for those that remain incarcerated. County and city officials must ensure that all facilities are up-to-date and following CDC health guidelines. People who remain incarcerated must have access to free phone calls with no time limits, along with access to free disinfectants such as hand sanitizer, soap, and cleaning products for shared toilets. Bexar County Jail staff—along with county officials—must actively work to provide access to free mental health services as a result of the heightened stress and anxiety caused by lockdown measures put in place in response to COVID-19. These services could include reliable access to mental healthcare professionals, with the use of virtual visitations if one-on-one consultations are not possible, as well as frequent mental health check-ins by appropriate jail staff. We demand that Bexar County jail be transparent about the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 inside the jail, and provide all relevant data to the public.
Release all people from jail. Jail staff must work to identify all high-risk populations using CDC health guidelines and immediately begin to release those who are most vulnerable to the harms of COVID-19. Officials must also release all individuals in pre-trial detention that have been charged with a bond-eligible offense, as well as those who are approximately 60 days from completing their sentences.
Compassionate release for those with violent offenses. Individuals charged with or convicted of violent offenses represent a significant portion of the jail population. Often, these individuals are deemed ineligible or inappropriate for release and are left behind by advocates and criminal justice reform legislation. However, we must give a compassionate, second look at release for these individuals, especially amidst a looming public health disaster in our prisons and jails. We urge Bexar county officials to advocate for the release of all people serving felony sentences, starting with those whose sentences are about to end. A structured release policy based on valid criminogenic research and data—not on unfounded fears and stereotypes—will go much further at minimizing the loss of life, while ensuring that our communities are kept safe.
Stop holding people for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when they would otherwise be released. As of April 7, there were at least 152 individuals with an ICE hold inside the county jail. These prolonged holds after an individual has been cleared to return to our community not only violate individuals’ constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment and subject the county to liability, but they present an increasing public health risk. In this unprecedented time, we need to exercise caution and allocate our limited resources efficiently to combat the spread of the virus and ensure our residents have access to treatment and desperately needed services. SB 4 does not require cooperation with federal immigration enforcement authorities unless it is “reasonable or necessary.” A recent report from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards shows that Texas counties spent almost $6.3 million detaining individuals on ICE detainers in February 2020. Instead of needlessly continuing to spend local resources for federal immigration enforcement activities, we need to prioritize our resources for local needs. Therefore, enforcement of immigration detainers must be suspended immediately.
Decline to prosecute all new cases, and work with judges to review current cases. The Bexar County District Attorney’s Office must decline to prosecute any new and incoming charges and dismiss all pending cases for low-level offenses immediately. Additionally, prosecutors must agree to the release of all people held on technical or stand-alone violations of probation and parole, or both. The DA’s Office, in consultation with judges, can also act within their authority to monitor the jail population and begin releasing all individuals who are unnecessarily being detained in Bexar County facilities. The DA must also stop seeking bench warrants for “Failure to Appear” to court for ALL people and especially those who are vulnerable to COVID-19. Lastly, prosecutors must suspend any policy that requires additional jail or probation time in exchange for a disposition that avoids negative immigration consequences of an offense. These recommendations will ensure that the county is continuously working to reduce the population of individuals unnecessarily detained, helping to mitigate the risk of exposure of COVID-19 to Bexar County jail staff, and those incarcerated in detention facilities.
Provide a comprehensive re-entry plan for every individual being released. Releasing individuals to save their lives is step one. Step two is ensuring that individuals have access to adequate resources during this public health emergency. Bexar County taxpayers pay $59 per person, per day to house someone in jail. These resources could be rerouted to expand housing services for those who need a place to live, as well as provide other basic needs, such as food security and adequate medical care. To meet this recommendation, county officials could partner with appropriate local community centers, clinics, and food pantries.