Preston Chaney, 64, could have been the poster child for a person most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. He had diabetes and suffered from heart and liver disease. After his arrest for burglary in the midst of the pandemic, he could have been out on bail had he managed to find $100. He did not have the money, and the coronavirus would eventually claim his life in Texas’ Harris County Jail.
Although he was in jail for 3.5 months before contracting coronavirus and succumbing, his case never made it to court. It is fair to say that Preston Chaney did not die because of COVID-19. Chaney died because he was poor.
Civil rights lawyers involved in the cases of Harris County Jail inmates held during the coronavirus crisis contend that judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys showed a “deep indifference to human suffering and illness” in their failure to assist at-risk inmates –still under presumption of innocence – to obtain release due to their poverty.
Even Houston’s Chief of Police, Art Acevedo, commented in a tweet that no one should be in jail for failure to pay a $100 bond for a non-violent offense, as was the case with Chaney. His staff will investigate the allegations, even though they are not in charge of the Harris County Jail.
An Active Outbreak
At the time of Chaney’s arrest on charges of stealing frozen meat and lawn equipment, the Harris County Jail experienced an active outbreak of COVID-19.
About the time he was arrested, in the third week of April 2020, the number of Harris County Sheriff’s Office employees diagnosed with coronavirus reached 126. Of those, 108 of those testing positive worked in jail.
The number of inmates testing positive was 93, with another 50 displaying coronavirus symptoms and placed in quarantine. The facility was a hotbed of the virus.
Gov. Abbott’s Executive Order
On March 20, 2020, Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order regarding detention in municipal and county jails during the pandemic. In it, he notes, “The jail population in Texas presents unique challenges in mitigating against and responding to the spread of COVID- 19.” Several counties were considering the release of those arrested or jailed to reduce the jail population’s size.
Abbott’s executive order forbade the release on personal bond of any person previously convicted of a crime involving either physical violence or its threat. Texas considers Chaney’s burglary charge a violent crime.
Jails vs. Prisons
While COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted the incarcerated population nationwide, jail inmates are at even greater risk than those in prison. Jails hold those who have been convicted of less serious crimes and sentenced to short terms, as well as those awaiting trial.
The jail population turnover is higher than that of prisons. Inmates often live in dormitories rather than cells per se, which can increase the spread of coronavirus.
Court-Appointed Lawyer Bills for Additional Work
Adding even more insult to the injury of Chaney’s death, his court-appointed lawyer, who spend a total of two hours on his case, submitted a bill for additional work. There is little evidence he attempted more than rudimentary measures to secure the release of his client.
Help for Inmates Who Died from Coronavirus
If you entered a jail or prison and already had coronavirus, there isn’t much we can do. Not unless the facility failed to provide adequate medical intervention. Although we haven’t seen the statistics, we believe that most inmates who contracted coronavirus received it while in jail. Those cases were largely preventable and inexcusable.
Without a true infection control plan, personal protective equipment, testing and cleaning protocols, we believe the State of California is responsible for those inmates who died while in custody. They are also responsible to their families.
Our jail death and injury lawyers are currently investigating claims by inmates who contracted coronavirus while in jail and subsequently died or suffered permanent injuries.
For more information, please visit our jail medical neglect information page. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online or by email at [hidden email].