High number of inmates test positive for COVID-19; Some are quarantined for safety measures

MGN Online

Nearly 400 inmates inside Cameron County’s four jail facilities have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the latest report from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

On Tuesday, local media reported that 354 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 inside the jails, allegedly prompting officials to place the facilities on lockdown. According to TCJS’s numbers, 739 inmates were quarantined or isolated but did not have active cases.

In comparison, 398 inmates had tested positive as of Wednesday. TCJS reported that 694 inmates were under quarantine. The Sheriff’s Department reported on July 1 that 45 inmates had tested positive at the Ruben M. Torres Detention Center, causing medical staff to begin mass testing.

As of Wednesday at press time, there had been no formal information or press release published by the department. Officials at the Sheriff’s Department did not respond to multiple requests for information on the situation at the jail and how the county is controlling the outbreak.

Cameron County referred all inquiries to the Cameron County Jail, where officials referred inquiries to Chief Deputy Gus Reyna. Captain Javier Reyna spoke with Channel 5 on Tuesday, confirming that all inmates were under quarantine.

The outlet reported that no visitations would be allowed, but inmates would be able to continue taking calls. Other reports from media and attorneys indicated that staff would limit inmate movement and postpone all court proceedings through the end of the month.

TCJS confirmed on Wednesday that the department had submitted a request to the agency asking for assistance with the outbreak, of which a copy has now been requested through the Texas Public Information Act.

Cases rose significantly this month. On July 7, a week after the first report of inmates testing positive, an additional 31 inmates had tested positive. The Sheriff’s Department reported 38 positive cases among detention officers, eight deputies, and three civilian employees who had tested positive Six of those employees were back to work.

“ Our efforts in containing the spread through quarantine and disinfecting continues to be strictly followed,” wrote the office in the post on social media.

The Sheriff’s Office hasn’t posted an update on the situation inside the jails since July 7. According to the Cameron County inmate list, the jail had 954 inmates on Wednesday. Officials have been working with the District Attorney’s Office since March to facilitate the release of nonviolent offenders in order to keep the jail population low.

A TCJS memorandum published on March 17 requires departments to screen everyone entering the facility, screen staff at the beginning of each shift, limit the movement of inmates within facilities, ensure proper sanitation, provide masks and gloves, and educate inmates and staff on CDC guidelines.

Statistics provided by TCJS for July 12, 13 and 14 showed significantly fewer inmate positives, suggesting that mass testing was just picking up. On Tuesday, the jails had a total of 92 active cases, 897 pending results, and 551 inmates under quarantine. Thirty-four jailers had also tested positive, and 40 were quarantined and pending test results.

District Attorney Luis V. Saenz expressed concern for inmates inside the jail whose cases are being prolonged due to the spread of the virus, particularly those who remain incarcerated for nonviolent offenses because they can’t afford bond.

However, he assured those with loved ones inside the facilities that the office is working with defense attorneys to facilitate plea agreements that will potentially see the release of more nonviolent offenders after July 27, the date Jail Administrator Joe Elizardi has said inmates can be transported to Zoom hearings again.

Cameron County has not held a jury trial since February. The Supreme Court of Texas issued an 18th Emergency Order on June 29 barring jury proceedings until September 1.

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com