The coronavirus pandemic continues to expose and exacerbate some of the worst inequities in America, especially those that disproportionately impact Black people.
The continuing crisis of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas, is evidence of this, according to civil rights lawyers working to sound the alarm about the fatal consequences of mass incarceration.
In a filing made last week by Civil Rights Corps against Harris County, which was obtained by The Root, the lawyers highlight the case of Preston Chaney, a 64-year-old Black man who died of COVID-19 in Harris County Jail last August after spending more than three months in jail because he was unable to pay $1,000 cash for bail.
Chaney was held on allegations that he stole lawn equipment and meat but languished in jail having never appeared before the judge assigned to his case, the filing says.
“There is no room for social distancing in the crowded jail,” Civil Rights Corps executive director Alec Karakatsanis shared on Twitter, where he revealed that Chaney suffered from heart disease, liver disease and diabetes. “Preston Chaney couldn’t protect himself. He had difficulty breathing and was taken to the hospital where he was intubated and died struggling for oxygen.”
The group alleges that Chaney died in jail because he was poor and unable to pay bail—a situation they say faces over 5,000 people still held in Harris County Jail, who they say are disproportionately Black and Latinx.
The filing also points to a 17-year-old mother who was jailed on conflicting allegations that she hit someone, denied bail and then contracted COVID-19 while locked up. She has since been released after the advocacy of Civil Rights Corps, but the group says that another 17-year-old has been in jail for months on a $10,000 secured bond.
The issue appears to be exacerbated by the Harris County District Attorney’s interpretation of an executive order issued by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which prohibits the release on personal bond of people suspected or previously convicted of a crime involving violence.
But the civil rights group says, “People with money who are charged with these same offenses are free to leave the jail immediately.”
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office told the Houston Chronicle, “Prosecutors don’t have the legal authority to order that anyone be held or released from jail, as such decisions are entirely up to judges; prosecutors can merely make recommendations, as can defense lawyers.”
Karakatsanis has shared a list of judges in Harris County who have presided over the cases of people detained pretrial because of their inability to pay bail—and that list is headed by judges who are Black women.
“The key decision-makers who can do something about it have chosen to do nothing, showing a deep indifference to human suffering and illness,” Elizabeth Rossi, senior attorney for Civil Rights Corps told The Root. “The County must take steps to address this injustice before more even lives are lost. To start, judges should release everyone caged because of money bail amounts of $10,000 or less. For everyone else, judges should set bail hearings, the Sheriff and County have set up a system for video bail hearings.”
The coronavirus pandemic has ratcheted up the stakes in other jail facilities across the country. Inmates in St. Louis set fires and broke windows at the St. Louis Justice Center last weekend, alleging mistreatment in the facilities amid positive COVID-19 cases, according to what civil rights groups told the Washington Post. Cassandra Greer-Lee, a Black woman in Chicago, says her husband Nickolas Lee died of COVID-19 after being incarcerated in Cook County Jail last spring, where he was being held without bail while awaiting trial. Illinois legislators recently passed a measure to eliminate cash bail in the state.