One of the lesser-covered hot button political issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic has been the large-scale release of prisoners from jails and prisons across the country as officials attempt to avoid coronavirus outbreaks among inmates in the close quarters of criminal incarceration.
Lawsuits have been filed by the ACLU and other organizations across the country arguing that it is unconstitutional or otherwise illegal to incarcerate inmates during the pandemic outbreak, based on a number of legal theories. Residents, meanwhile, have expressed anxiety concerning the release of prisoners while police resources are increasingly tied up managing the coronavirus outbreak, and police departments have been disproportionately hit with COVID cases.
This has played out in dramatic fashion in Harris County, Texas, which contains a large portion of the Houston metropolitan area and is the third most populous county in the nation. There, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced earlier this week that she planned to issue an order that would release over 1,000 prisoners from jail in an attempt to avoid a “public health catastrophe.” Hidalgo stated that her order would not apply to anyone with a violent record and that the prosecuting DA would have to sign off on each prisoner’s release.
Hidalgo issued the order on Wednesday, and Harris County Sheriffs began combing through inmates to identify the most “medically vulnerable” inmates for possible release. The order sparked widespread community unrest and unease, until criminal court supervisory judge Herb Ritchie issued an extraordinary order on Friday, commanding Harris County sheriffs to ignore Hidalgo’s order as “null and void,” and threatening them with contempt and/or fines if they continued to release felony prisoners.
According to Ritchie’s order, felony defendants’ cases are the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of one of the “22 felony district courts” in the state, and any order issued by a county judge ordering their release is “VOID ON ITS FACE and of NO FORCE AND EFFECT.” The order goes on to direct the Harris County Sheriffs to “IGNORE and WHOLLY DISREGARD any order and/or directive from the Harris County Judge regarding… any  order of release, as the same purports to affect felony inmates or probationers now in custody of Harris County Sheriffs or the Harris County Community Corrections and Supervision Department[.]”
The order concludes with a stern warning, threatening fines and possible jail time for any Harris County Sheriffs Department personnel who attempt to release prisoners under Judge Hidalgo’s order.
Almost immediately, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez took to twitter to declare that he did not know how to resolve the conflicting orders, saying, “This is obviously a legal matter and I have two conflicting legal documents. I’m a cop, not a lawyer. I’ll let the lawyers figure it out.”
Prior to Judge Ritchie’s order, seven inmates had been freed under Judge Hidalgo’s order. Most legal observers in Texas believe that this case is headed for a hopefully speedy resolution before the Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas.
According to local news reports, so far three inmates in the Harris County corrections system have tested positive for coronavirus, with an additional 30 more displaying symptoms and awaiting test results. Approximately 800 inmates have been placed into quarantine.