A local attorney has filed requests with the court to consider alternatives to incarcerations for his clients due to his contention the Burnet County Jail could be a “hot bed” of COVID-19 infections.
Austin Shell of Shell & Shell Attorneys at Law characterized potential exposure by his clients to the coronavirus as a threat to their health and safety.
“I think that subjecting citizens to a potentially deadly disease strikes me as cruel and unusual punishments,” he told the Burnet Bulletin in an interview on Sept. 2. “Reasonable alternative remedies to incarcerating innocent people exist such as ankle monitors, home arrests, supervision by our bond supervision department – not to mention we as taxpayers don’t have to pay to house these otherwise innocent people.
“We have filed motions asking the court to consider alternatives to incarcerations in the Burnet County Jail,” he added.
Shell added that he serves approximately 10 clients, who are in jail for various criminal allegations.
“They are all simply allegations at this point,” Shell said. “None of these people have been proven guilty of these allegations.”
The jail, 900 County Ln., has the capacity to hold approximately 580 inmates, however, officials explained that as of late they have averaged a fraction of the number.
“We’re trying to keep the jail population down,” Burnet County Sheriff Calvin Boyd said.
“Most of the people who tested positive, they don’t have any symptoms. We take every precaution we can,” Boyd added. “It doesn’t matter if they (suspects) are tested or not, if they’re arrested we isolate them for 14 days.”
BCSO administrators have focused on balancing population with staffing requirements set forth by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS).
“One of the biggest concerns is the staff because we have to stay in compliance with the state. We have staff who tested positive,” Boyd said. “We tested 69 staff members and 16 were positive (approximately two weeks). They had to stay home for 14 days.”
Currently, TCJS records show that as off Aug. 25, six jailers are deemed “active positive”; 86 inmates are considered “not active” but “isolated”; 184 inmates are considered “active positive”; 26 more inmate tests are considered “not active” and pending results.
“We were lucky in the last month or so, some of the things we’ve done, not just us but all agencies around here, we’re only bringing people to jail who need to be in jail,” Boyd said. “For non-violent crimes, we’re trying not to put those folks in jail.”
He said if warranted deputies consider issuing citations instead.
“I think the judges have been pretty lenient with bonds, doing some personal recognizance bonds,” Boyd added.
Shell expressed concerns for the numbers.
“I’m worried about there being a hot bed in Burnet County. As people are getting out (of jail), whether they’re being released from a hot bed, they’re more likely to bring the disease with them into Burnet County,” Shell said. “Despite the nature of the allegations, we’re concerned that people who have not been found guilty and who are innocent of the allegations are very likely to contract a potentially deadly disease.”
BCSO jail administrators stand by the system in place.
“We’re cleaning the jail constantly. Everyone is wearing mask. We’re doing everything we can to keep everybody safe. It looks like we’re just about through the worst part of the virus at the jail,” Boyd said.
“One of the benefits of a large jail is we’re able to isolate people in different wings. As an agency, not just the jail, we were able to stay in compliance.
“The question becomes if they test positive, do we keep them in there (jail) or send them home to infect everybody else,” he added.
Boyd believes the process offers more protection than just for those who remain incarcerated.
“Some people need to be incarcerated, just because of the nature of the charges,” he said. “They are more dangerous out of jail than COVID.”