JEFFERSON COUNTY — More and more people are booked into the Jefferson County Jail every day, and fewer are getting out.
That’s why it’s almost at full capacity with nearly one thousand inmates.
COVID is causing courts to cancel jury trials, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is further complicating the crowded conditions.
“We’ve just found out today that TDC is limiting the number of people they’ll accept,” said Chief John Shauberger. “That avenue of moving people from the county jail to the state prison is going to slow down as well.”
Jail Chief John Shauberger says there are about 200 inmates waiting to be sent to state prison and 700 pre-trial felony suspects waiting to go to court. However, he is running out of space, and that makes stopping the COVID spread nearly impossible.
“A fairly rapid increase in the last couple of weeks, pretty indicative about what our community is experiencing is well,” said Shauberger.
Positive cases in the outside world usually lead to closures, but not in this environment.
“We can’t shut down,” said Shauberger. “It’s a 24-7 operation. It’s imperative to public safety, and you know the men and women out here are doing a fantastic job, but we’re getting tired.”‘
No one knows that better than Captain Aaron Morris.
He’s been in corrections for 20 years. He’s also president of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Association.
It’s 200 members strong, but Morris says these days, it’s hard for the men and women he represents to feel strength as they work long days without much time off.
“Working overtime, not seeing their families, missing out on family time with their kids to protect the general public,” said Morris.
The main reason for the overtime is that COVID is not just impacting inmates but correctional officers themselves. They get sick and must stay home, leaving a smaller staff at the jail facing a greater risk.
“We have dorms that actually are housing people that are COVID positive,” said Morris. “Well, we can’t ask the inmates to supervise the inmates, so we have officers that have to work in COVID positive dorms, and we have to send them in there every day with PPE, but there is the possibility you can contract COVID 19.”
That’s not their only fear.
Sheriff Zena Stephens tried to reduce the crowding at the jail, discouraging arrests for misdemeanor and non-violent violations.
That decreases the population by 50 to 75 per week, but those who remain pose a greater threat.
“These are dangerous people with COVID 19,” said Morris. “It’s taking a toll here and actually in the community. You have more violent crimes, more robberies, more aggravated robberies, aggravated assault, murderers, all that’s here with our people.”
It’s a situation with no solution in sight, as correctional officers continue to confront COVID under constantly crowded conditions.
The jail has nearly 1,000 inmates and 1,100 beds, but all those beds can’t be used because inmates must be segregated.
For instance, 17-year-olds can’t be in the general population. So right now, the correctional facility has six inmates who are 17, and they are housed in a dorm that’s designed for 48 people, but they are the only ones who can be there, which leaves a lot of unused space.
Written by ANGEL SAN JUAN