Prisons and jails across the nation are releasing prisoners during the coronavirus pandemic. However, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has bucked the trend and is restricting the release of many inmates. Lawyers are challenging his policy.
Abbot issued a statement that suspended elements of the state’s bail laws. He banned the release of people held in jail for violent crimes or previously convicted of crimes of violence unless they could afford to pay cash bail.
Inmates held on felonies can still walk free if they can access cash for bail. Texas counties including Dallas and Harris, have been sued in the past in federal court over cash bail practices that critics said were unconstitutional and discriminated against poorer defendants. A federal judge sided with the inmates.
The Texas Tribune reported that Abbott’s order was intended to keep violent criminals off the streets of Texas’ towns and cities. It attracted criticism from lawyers, legal scholars, and Democrats who said it kept poor defendants in jail while more wealthy ones secured release.
In early April, attorneys representing inmates held in Harris County filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against the Governor’s order.
The Tribune reported the motion requested U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to order Harris County judges to ignore Abbott’s order that bars them from releasing someone without securing cash bail until a full federal hearing.
The Texas Observer reported calls for the compassionate release of sick and elderly prisoners Texas increased since the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in prisons.
Defense lawyers, public health experts, and even some Texas prosecutors warned overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in correctional institutions make them breeding grounds for the coronavirus.
Nationally, 14 senators from both parties sent a letter to the Justice Department calling for the release of older prisoners, those with terminal illnesses, and low-risk inmates in federal prisons.
The Observer reported Abbott has ignored pleas for the release of the most vulnerable prisoners. Instead, he sent an executive order restricting what Texas counties can do to reduce their jail populations. The restrictions apply to inmates who can’t pay bail and those accused or previously convicted of violent offenses.
Although prisons have taken some measures to address the spread of COVID-19, inmates have warned of sanitary conditions. Two inmates at the Wallace Pack prison near Houston have sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. They claim prison authorities failed to protect them from the virus.