Virus forces county jails on lockdown until end of July

Officials with the Cameron County Sheriff’s Department have responded to the nearly 400 positive COVID-19 cases among inmates inside the county jails by instituting mass testing for both inmates and employees.

All of the facilities have been placed on lockdown until the end of July in an effort to prevent further spread of the virus.

Captain of Operations Javier Reyna said on Friday that medical staff inside the jail facilities assured him that approximately 80 percent of those who tested positive have recovered, and that many of the carriers have been asymptomatic.

“We made a decision to test everybody because the doctor wanted to know the numbers — whatever the ugly truth was going to be. Out of our 1,087 inmates — our count is low right now — unfortunately, 398 have come out positive,” Reyna said.

The jail lockdown was recommended by the department’s physician, who also asked for mass testing when inmates began showing symptoms. “The reason our numbers are high is because every single inmate got tested. If other jails would follow suit, their numbers would skyrocket,” Reyna said.

“We took the doctor’s advice, and for the safety of the inmates and the safety of the staff, we locked it down for now. We’re going to take the doctor’s advice, and we’re hoping that will stop the spread,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Department approached the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and the Texas Department of Emergency Management around two weeks ago when inmates began displaying symptoms — first in the downtown jail facility in Brownsville, then at the Carrizales-Rucker Detention Center in Olmito.

Testing initially led to the discovery of some 92 positive cases in the facility in downtown Brownsville, prompting the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to lend its strike force to facilitate mass testing at each of the four facilities.

“Nobody has required hospitalization. This morning, I talked with our medical team — they said there are a lot of asymptomatic carriers. Some have mild fevers, but I think all that has been brought under control,” said Reyna.

According to the captain, inmates who need it have been given medication. The department purchased Gatorade and juices for hydration, and inmates are being kept in their respective areas until at least July 27.

The Sheriff’s Department set up triage tents in accordance with TCJS guidelines at the end of March, allowing medical staff to temperature check and question all visiting attorneys and staff, though such screenings cannot flag asymptomatic carriers unless visitors have been in direct contact with someone confirmed positive.

The department is required under TCJS’s March 17 updated guidance to provide adequate PPE such as masks and gloves to all inmates and staff.

Advocates have emphasized since the start of the pandemic that inmates cannot socially distance inside jails, placing lives at risk. Locally, authorities have worked with the District Attorney’s office to facilitate the release of nonviolent offenders on bond or under plea agreements.

That process is ongoing. DA Luis V. Saenz said on Thursday that his office was working with defense attorneys to reach potential agreements for those with nonviolent offenses still held inside, which could see certain inmates released once the lockdown lifts.

As for jail employees — Reyna said the department was able to secure enough tests to screen the entire staff this week. As of July 7, 38 detention officers, eight deputies, and 10 civilian employees had tested positive. Six had fully recovered, and the department is planning another update as results come in from this week’s tests, which medical staff administered on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“We haven’t had a big increase of detention officers getting sick,” said Reyna, adding that the department suspects the number will be slightly higher than the 38 reported 10 days ago.