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The Harris County Jail complex is in downtown Houston, but not of it. From many vantages inside, an inmate can get a pretty good look at the city center, its expanse of glass towers, theaters, arenas, bars and restaurants interrupted here and there by little green parks. But the jail is separated from downtown by Buffalo Bayou, a muddy river that serves as a kind of municipal moat, bending around three sides of the jail complex. It’s a constant reminder of the gulf between those inside and society outside.
The jail complex is an isolated, dispiriting place, all the more so for its central location. Sequestration in the heart of a metropolis can’t be easy in ordinary times. But it’s at least as difficult to gaze out on a nearly abandoned part of the city, knowing that the same virus that emptied the streets threatens the facility — and if you’re an inmate, you can’t leave.
The letters excerpted here are from a handful of detainees at the Harris County Jail, the second largest in the country and the site of a fast-moving outbreak of COVID-19. Their authors sent them to people they got to know while in jail, and those people, with permission, gave them to me. Some detainees agreed to use their first or full names; others requested anonymity and are identified by an initial. The letters, all handwritten, span a little less than a month, roughly the window during which the coronavirus gained its foothold in the facility. (In several instances, the transcribed versions of the letters have been edited slightly for clarity.)
Jails are inherently vulnerable to disease outbreaks. More than prisons, they have high turnover. Most detainees are there awaiting trial, not convicted of charges, with new ones arriving regularly and others leaving. That gives a virus many opportunities to breach the perimeter. The dormitory-like living quarters at the facility only exacerbate the risks.
Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who operates the jail, has been open about the near-impossibility of social distancing in jail and has advocated for finding ways to release more vulnerable and nonviolent inmates. Despite external barriers to release, Gonzalez has managed to lower the detainee population, from 8,000 at the end of March to about 7,450 today, and the jail has adopted a raft of precautions to limit spread, such as cleaning surfaces more often, providing inmates with more soap and disinfectant spray, and screening anybody who enters the jail for signs of infection.
“All in all, I think we’ve done remarkably well under the circumstances,” Gonzalez said in an interview Thursday. “We’ve seen no loss of life, even though we’re one of the largest jail systems in the country.” Still, he didn’t shy away from criticism leveled in some of the letters, which at times question how consistently the jail is following its policies. “Sometimes we miss the mark,” Gonzalez said. “But we’re trying always to improve, to spot check, to trust but verify.”
As of Thursday, 392 inmates were infected with the coronavirus, according to the jail, along with 200 staff members.
The trajectory of the virus remains uncertain. But Houston is now in range of two other big-city jail complexes struggling with severe outbreaks: New York City’s Rikers Island (378 inmates positive; 1,037 jail staff; three inmates dead) and Chicago’s Cook County Jail (some 261 inmates; 148 staff), whose outbreak ProPublica chronicled Thursday. (That article’s higher figures counted people who had been infected then recovered.) Six Cook County inmates and one guard there have died.
The first letter is dated March 26. At that point, the world looked a lot different. No inmates had tested positive, and the six staff members who had didn’t have regular contact with inmates.
CLEO, Thursday, March 26:
As far as jail conditions are concerned, they still are not providing us with sufficient Soap to wash hands. One 2 oz. bottle of soap per week. I wash my very own clothes because I have multiple times seen people catch a staph infection from the so called clean laundry they pass out whenever they decide that they want to do Clothes change out which isn’t that often. From what I’ve read and my previous experience with diseases and health care in jails, there’s most definitely a high probability of me getting this disease.
Three days later, on March 29, the first Harris County detainee tested positive for the coronavirus. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order, GA-13, that same afternoon. It forbade judges to release detainees from jail without requiring they post bail if they were accused or previously had been convicted of a violent crime.
News can travel fast in jail, and it can travel slow. Gonzalez said he tried to keep inmates informed. But in Harris County, word of the first confirmed infection took time to make the rounds.
D, Monday, March 30:
We’re all scared of this place getting infected it only takes one guard or the wrong inmate for it to be spread in here like fire in a barn. They say they’re trying to release some of us but doing very little.
Soon, nearly three dozen detainees were in quarantine, suffering symptoms consistent with the coronavirus. They were placed in a “tank”: four open rooms the sheriff had set aside. At least a dozen staff members had tested positive.
On April 1, the sheriff issued an ominous warning. “It is only a matter of time before there is an outbreak among the 7,791 inmates in the jail,” Gonzalez said in a statement. “When it does occur, leading Texas Medical Center experts tell us it will spread like wildfire in the overcrowded dorms, cells, and shared bathrooms, showers, and common areas. We have a limited and narrow window to act now to prevent a true crisis.”
PAUL REYES, Saturday, April 4:
As of 4-4-20 we have been quarantined and no one has informed us as to what’s going on with our situation, and since being quarantined no one has been tested in order to check and see if anyone may be infected with COVID-19. Everyone on this dorm is concerned about what’s going on and what is going to happen.
By Wednesday, April 8, four inmates had tested positive. An additional 58 were in quarantine with COVID-19-like symptoms. Jail staff faced some ominous news: The number of infections among them had doubled since Monday, to 24.
More than a thousand inmates — about 13% of the jail’s population — who showed no symptoms of infection but had come into contact with someone who had tested positive were in “observational quarantine.” Effectively that meant isolating exposed but asymptomatic inmates — sometimes entire housing units. A shortage of testing kits prevented the sheriff's office from testing these inmates, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, Jason Spencer, said.
“It’s getting harder to tell one day from the next,” Gonzalez wrote on his department’s Facebook page.
One of the inmates who had gotten sick was Rendrick Cheeks, who goes by Ren. He suffers from hypertension and has a compromised immune system.
REN CHEEKS, Wednesday, April 8:
After reading your letter, you ask me a few questions. “How are conditions in jail?” Not clean at all in this quarantine tank, no chemicals to clean our cells, shower area needs sanitizing with bleach. “Do you have enough cleaning products and soap?” For my personal hygiene items, yes. I have been asking for clean clothes since Saturday, and here it is Wednesday — that’s very unhealthy to our bodies to be wearing dirty clothes.
At this present time I am sick with a bad cold/flu, possibly coronavirus. I am scared. So I am letting you know, I got really sick on last Friday.
I told my girlfriend over the phone to call the medical clinic to tell them I was feeling bad—so I could get them to come get me and be seen as a walk-in.
Well after they checked my vital signs and my fever was up to a 110° then they seen it was a serious situation.
Furthermore, I was rushed out in an ambulance to Ben Taub Hospital to be screened by a doctor, so I was given medication, a shot, and a chest x-ray. Then they released me on Saturday and sent me back to the jail and screened by the 1200 Baker St. clinic — then they put me in a quarantine tank on the 4th floor at the female inmates floor for 14 days. I am scared because of some guys in here that’s sicker than I.
I do not want to die in here. Honestly, I have not seen a doctor come in here to test me for the so-called COVID-19.
I am being forced to be incarcerated, as if this is a death sentence. I am no public safety threat/high risk as to a history of violence or any past violent crimes on my prior history.
CLEO, Thursday, April 9:
We are all doing fine for the most part. Ren came down with the flu last Friday. He went down to medical and the next thing we knew we were all on observational quarantine. I haven’t seen him since, and no one else has gotten sick, so I believe that he’s fine.
Some who saw the prospect of near-term release were unsure whether they’d be any safer on the outside.
E, Thursday, April 9:
One thing I could use some help with is since being here I have become homeless & have no place to go once released. Since this COVID-19 pandemic I am unsure of any homeless shelters or halfway houses that would be accepting any new people. So any information that you could send me concerning this situation would be helpful to myself & fellow peers.
Spencer, the sheriff’s spokesman, said homeless inmates, when released, are given a 14-day protective quarantine in a hotel; those exhibiting symptoms of the virus are isolated at “COVID-19” hotels designated by the city.
By April 13, a Monday, 46 inmates had tested positive for coronavirus, as had 63 jail staff. On top of that, nearly 1,600 inmates — about 20% of the population — were in observational quarantine.
Outside, a lawsuit brought by a group of state judges and others had won a court order the previous Friday, halting the governor’s restrictions on bail. By Monday, the state Supreme Court, in turn, had put the lower court order on hold.
GREGGORY “SHANE” NEVELLIS, Monday, April 13
These are frightening times here at the Harris County Jail! The last I heard, over 1,100 inmates were on quarantine. I feel great, but see fellow inmates getting, and staying sick for over 2 wks.
We’re literally living in bunk beds that are only 2 1/2 feet apart on both sides! No “social distancing” here!
MATTHEW COLE, Monday, April 13:
It’s scary in here to say the least. I was diagnosed with asthma and scar tissue on my lungs when I was twelve. I’m on an albuterol inhaler and Singulair which is a breathing medication. I don’t know if my lungs could make it through COVID-19. Social distancing is impossible and hand sanitizer is not available. The only way to get bleach is to buy it with food from commissary from the trustees. They are trying to contain something that is impossible to stop in here. A detention officer that works the 701 Kitchen tested positive for the virus so all the kitchen workers in 3D4 were put on quarantine. This left no available people to make our food! To fix the problem, the guards and floor workers started passing out sandwiches. This caused a lot of inmates to burn mattresses & blankets on the 7th floor and a lot of animosity towards guards throughout the jail. Also us inmates are literally having to fight other inmates for commissary and food. Only the strong survive attitude.
I can’t bond out because I have a parole hold. The parole hold is all that is in my way! I get off in December and recently filed a writ to lift hold with them due to my lung condition w/ evidence. People like [Gov.] Greg Abbott and Judge Ritchie have no heart or compassion. There are many sick and elderly and nonviolent offenders who could be released and wait for trial! Unfortunately, a lot of our lives don’t matter to them. We are just numbers. Please let me know if you got this! Mail room may stop it from going out. Thank you share it with whomever.
For vulnerable inmates, like Cole, Gonzalez said, jail medical staff has tried to find ways to space them out across housing areas and facilities, to avoid the grim fate of nursing homes.
RICH, Tuesday, April 14:
Being locked up with no fighting chance is wrong. Most of us don’t have life sentences to have a death sentence because of lack of medical supplies, basically it’s like sitting on death row.
KEN, Thursday, April 16
And each day that I wake up I’m in fear of my life. Our bunks are about 8 inches apart. And the tank next door is quarantined, there is a doorway between us and them that is not sealed. The whole social distancing is not in compliance. We are closer than 6 ft. We are in a dorm with 58 men. I would like to know if there is any help for us inmates and how do we go about getting word to someone that could please help us out. It’s like they don’t care about anyone in here. Not all of us are guilty of the charges that are against us. Please take this letter seriously because people’s lives are in danger.
Thanks for your time and keep all of us in your prayers, as we will do the same for y’all.
By April 16, there were 68 inmates confirmed positive for the coronavirus. An additional 47 inmates were in quarantine with symptoms of infection. Nearly 100 members of the jail staff had tested positive, too.
Like Matthew Cole, another inmate, C, who requires a pacemaker, worried about his frail health and the health of other inmates who lived with him in a packed jail dorm.
C, Saturday, April 18:
Now, I’m here in Harris County Jail, the 1200 Baker St. building, where has been a number of officers and inmates who has tested positive. But Harris County has yet to notify all inmates and employees at this facility of who these people was nor where was located. Furthermore, they have not been forthcoming with information about cases. Then Harris County did not immediately provide masks, gloves, nor disinfectant wipes to clean this jail. Didn’t tell no one when the sick inmate nor officers was last here.
There are 60 inmates in 3B1 and 3B2, that has no way of being 6 feet apart. That would be very difficult. Harris County has not handed out no antibacterial soap, hand sanitizer nor wipes, nor disinfecting. How are we supposed to know who is sick and where to avoid? Actually, they failed to provide a safe and sanitary environment for inmates nor guards. All individuals don’t properly wash their hands, which happens to be the primary way Covid 19 spreads.
If you put a sheet up to separate you and the person who sleeps basically next to you, to keep from catching anything, an officer will say take it down. Violation clearly. As for a person pre-existing health problem, we, like myself, has congestive heart failure, my cellmate that sleeps next to me has throat cancer and another cellmate had open heart surgery, we all still here. Harris County is not concerned like they say. This is a place where the focus is money. Lives is obviously not important. Cause high risk is heart disease, lung disease and kidney disease and 50+ in age. They let some people out, but look at who? There are sick inmates here now. When they beg to see the doctor, some officers won’t even call them, not one inmate in here been tested. This doesn’t seem to make sense, cause there are many people here innocent and can’t get out with a dismissal.
Well, now I’m in fear for my life, cause I have heart disease, in which I can’t get that virus period. Then I’m 54, bad combination.
At one point in his letter, C wrote that he was worried about “unknowing carriers.” He was right to worry. This Wednesday, jail officials said that close to a quarter of inmates with positive coronavirus tests had no discernible symptoms.
The trajectory of the outbreak at the Harris County Jail remains uncertain; a shortage of tests prevented widespread testing until recently. When C wrote his letter, only 200 inmates had been tested for the coronavirus. But the jail began more widespread testing last week after receiving more test kits.
Testing capacity, Gonzalez says, may be the difference between a Rikers or Cook County-style outbreak and a far less deadly outcome — both to detect cases sooner and to get inmates treatment earlier. “If we don’t do more testing, we’ll have deaths sooner or later,” Gonzalez said. Last week, the Texas Supreme Court issued a final ruling that upheld the governor’s order restricting bail, making it harder to lower jail populations.
For inmates like C, the newfound fear and uncertainty don’t displace the fear and uncertainty inherent to life in jail awaiting trial. Even as C contemplates the serious risk of death, he ends his letter like many detainees might in ordinary times. “P.S. I also need a lawyer. I have some money, not a lot.”