COVID-19 Outbreak: Urgent Responses and Solutions Required by the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office

May 21, 2020

Sheriff Javier Salazar: 

We, the undersigned organizations and residents of Bexar County, are deeply concerned regarding the rise in cases of COVID-19 in the Bexar County Adult Detention Center. Now is the time for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) to take the critical next steps necessary to address this current health crisis, and ensure that every possible solution is being actively pursued. Failing to be proactive in these next steps will result in the loss of more lives, both in the jail and out in the community. SA Stands and other criminal justice partners have been in contact with your office to express our concern about the risks of a COVID-19 outbreak. This included a letter sent on March 19, 2020, calling for the release of pretrial detention populations, and a public statement published on March 20, 2020, announcing a public call for a moratorium on arrests and new jail bookings. 

This outbreak began at the jail in late March and has since continued to rise, with San Antonio Metro Health currently reporting 396 incarcerated individuals infected, along with 58 deputies. As these numbers increase, experts fear that this may only be the beginning of a much bigger crisis. With COVID-19 spreading inside the jail, we will most certainly see more deaths and an increased likelihood of the virus jumping from the jail and out into the community. Both outcomes will result in our local hospitals being overwhelmed, and our community being put at an increased danger.

Reporting from county and local sources further highlight just how difficult it is for jails to respond effectively to a virus such as COVID-19. According to data from Metro Health, approximately 74% of those incarcerated who have tested positive for COVID-19 have been asymptomatic. This troubling figure has also been found with staff members, noting that a significant portion of deputies who have tested positive for COVID-19 have also shown zero symptoms of having the virus. In a San Antonio Express News article on May 14, you were quoted as saying, “every couple of days, just when we think we have it figured out, something happens.” Both of these examples highlight just how difficult it is for any jail to deal with this health crisis effectively, and the importance for all stakeholders to come together to reach solutions.

Unfortunately, the Bexar County Adult Detention Center has already experienced the worst of this virus with the death of Clifford Childs, and the tragic loss of a deputy due to complications from COVID-19. As these deaths are extremely saddening and upsetting, they both represent a microcosm of the devastating consequences of this virus, and the need to continue to explore further solutions in working to mitigate these types of outcomes. According to a report done by the American Civil Liberties Union, if the same health measures being taken by the general public are ignored in jails, then the currently projected deaths attributed to COVID-19 will be substantially undercounted. In Bexar County alone, this report shows that the projected deaths inside the jail could amount to a 7% increase in the county’s total number of deaths.

It is under these concerning circumstances that the BCSO must take immediate action on the recommendations outlined below.  

Recommendations to Address the COVID-19 Outbreak

Contrary to the statements and actions of our state leadership, health experts have predicted we will continue to face this pandemic for months to come. In order to help save lives, we demand that the following measures be taken immediately so that no more lives are lost

  • Release public data on the following issues. We ask that BCSO be transparent and provide the following information to the public: number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 inside the jail, number of people placed in confinement, number of tests available and being provided on a daily basis, and number of hospital transfers. In addition, please provide accurate arrest and booking data since our shelter in place order was issued on March 23, 2020, including the date of the arrest, charge, bond, ethnicity/race, and arresting agency in every incident.
  • Issue a moratorium on all arrests and new bookings. We applaud efforts made by the BCSO to encourage local law enforcement officials to issue citations in lieu of arrests. However, this is not enough. People are still being arrested for low-level offenses, which causes a revolving door of people coming in and out of jail, creating a situation that could further harm populations inside the jail and the community. Sheriff’s in El Paso, Denton, Collin and Dallas Counties have all called on their respective local law enforcement agencies to halt, or drastically decrease the number of arrests. BCSO must demand the same, and work to encourage officers to use decarceral alternatives to arrests that include warnings, pre-arrest diversion opportunities, citations and/or summons, as well as community-based resources and programs. 
  • Immediately provide a safe environment for those that remain incarcerated. We thank the BCSO’s efforts to follow CDC health guidelines and recognize the progress and efforts in maintaining a clean jail, as well as providing more masks and soap bars for all individuals. We ask that you continue to increase access to free disinfectants such as hand sanitizer and cleaning products for shared toilets. We ask that your office actively work to provide free and unlimited phone calls for defendants to connect with their loved ones, and offer 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. 
  • Release all people from jail. As Sheriff, you play a vital role in either directly or indirectly securing the release of individuals inside the jail. We urge you to begin releasing individuals through accelerated good time and work time credits. In areas where you may not have the authority to release individuals, we suggest working with other local officials in prioritizing recommendations for release by providing access to critical information such as health, risk, or time left on sentences. Acting to continuously review individuals who are serving sentences inside the jail and making recommendations for other options to confinement is all too critical in light of the current outbreak inside the jail. Considering that a large portion of the population inside jails are pretrial arrestees, we urge you to work with the Bexar County Criminal Courts to ensure the release of as many pretrial arrestees as possible.
  • Compassionate release for those with violent offenses. Although Governor Greg Abbott’s Order issued on March 29, 2020, limits your authority in releasing individuals charged with or convicted of violent offenses. We urge you to send a list of the people who would otherwise be eligible for release to county judges, advocating for alternative solutions. A structured release policy based on valid criminogenic research and data—not on unfounded fears and stereotypes—will minimize 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 7th, 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.
  • Provide a comprehensive re-entry plan for every individual being released. Releasing individuals to save their lives is only the first step. The next crucial step is ensuring that individuals have access to adequate resources during this public health emergency. We urge you to work with the Bexar County Commissioners Court to secure the resources to provide all the required funding to ensure access to services for those being released. 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, and provide other basic needs, such as food security and adequate medical care. 

Thank you for your urgent attention to these issues. We will continue to be in contact as you work to address this current outbreak, and welcome opportunities to collaborate on possible solutions and alternatives.  

With urgency,

All of Us or None Texas

Immigrant Legal Resource Center

MOVE Texas Action Fund

SA Stands 

Andrea Figueroa,ED, Martinez Street Women’s Center

Brittany Sharp, Youth Educator

Cristian Esparza, Texas Organizing Project

Deborah Young – Retired Educator

Debra Hernandez, RAICES Texas, member of SA Stands coalition

Fabiola Ochoa Torralba, Community Advocate

Jake Tucker – Party for Socialism and Liberation

Jeril Bills, First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Antonio Social Justice Committee

Joanna Klekowicz, Education Leader

Jovanni Reyes, ABOUT FACE: Veterans Against the War, SATX Chapter

Judith Cashin Lerma, RNC MSN, CCM, National Nurses United 

Justin Martinez, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition

Kyle Kennedy – Party for Socialism and Liberation

Laura Ríos-Ramirez, De Corazón Consulting, KMSW 101.5 FM Martinez Street Women’s Center

Lexy Garcia, Texas Freedom Network

Maya Pilgrim, Evaluation Consultant

Mayra Solis – Educator

Natalie Clifford, Teacher

Rachell Tucker – Party for Socialism and Liberation

Rosa Torres, Dance Educator, Choreographer

Shelley Ettinger, Workers World Party 

Teresa Gutierrez, F.I.R.E. (Fight for Im/Migrants & Refugees Everywhere)

Ximena Urrutia-Rojas, DrPH