OPINION

Bozelko column: Physician-senator should know inmate release during COVID-19 is the right thing to do

Chandra Bozelko More Content Now USA TODAY NETWORK
Chandra Bozelko

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Even when temperatures rise in Texas, the chill surrounding the Harris County Jail  won’t leave.  

A lawsuit filed by Civil Rights Corps in 2019 on behalf of Harris County detainees to address the wealth-based detention system there has turned into a series of fast-paced filings to save detainees from the COVID-19 spread within. In that case, the county sheriff, Ed Gonzalez, moved for an emergency hearing about ways to release more detainees. Gonzalez ended his motion with a prayer for relief that’s almost too genial for litigation.   

“We could use some help,” Gonzalez wrote, through counsel.  

Gonzalez won’t get it if a group of eight Texas state legislators have their way. One state senator and seven representatives filed opposition to Sheriff Gonzalez in the form of an amicus “friend of the court” brief. They’ve been opposing the sheriff since April. They updated their brief in late January.  

There’s one among the opposition team who’s different from the others. Texas State Rep. Tom Oliverson (R-Cypress) is a medical doctor - a licensed anesthesiologist and partner in the largest anesthesiology practice in the state. His official biography states that Oliverson’s a “tireless advocate for patients and their safety.”

Late last year, the Prison Policy Initiative reported that as many as 500,000 new coronavirus cases resulted from mismanagement of the disease inside; it was a revelation that hasn’t received the attention it deserved. Especially since that was back on Dec. 15, when the United States had just gone past 300,000 deaths from COVID-19, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that community spread originating in corrections would be even higher now that the U.S. reached 500,000 deaths on Feb. 22.  

I can’t report whether Oliverson knows about the Prison Policy Initiative's study, although I did ask and provide a link to the information in an email to Oliverson’s chief of staff. To be fair, Oliverson’s website contains lots of relevant recently posted information for constituents as they endure the weather and energy crises; he and his staff have been tending to them rather than answering my questions, which is how it should be. I won’t interpret Oliverson’s lack of a reply as anything other than he’s doing his job.

But Oliverson knows two things for sure: his duty as a physician - he took an oath, the Hippocratic Oath, to do no harm, above all else - and that people have died in the Harris County Jail, because that’s explained in Sheriff Gonzalez’s motion.  

Sometimes that oath complicates the oaths that legislators take to the United States constitution - and their state constitutions if they serve at that level. Sometimes party loyalties rub up against sound medical judgment.  

But those conflicts shouldn’t trump science. When surgeon and former Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) - he served for 12 years and eventually became majority leader - had to make a choice about lending his power to reversing President George W. Bush’s policies on stem cell research, Frist refused to vote with his party. In fact the former senator showed “a willingness to allow his medical judgment to guide some of his most controversial votes,” according to the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics.  

Oliverson needs to do the same. But he isn’t really facing a conflict between his oaths. Part of keeping Oliverson’s constituents safe is helping Sheriff Gonzalez with his goal to save the inmates. To let some people out of the Harris County Jail may prevent infections in his community - Houston, the country’s fourth-largest city - as well as spare the detainees that Hippocratic harm he’s supposed to dodge.   

Medical doctors are largely in agreement on decarceration during the pandemic. Early on, 12 frontline doctors in Boston called for releases. Four of the 10 authors of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s 2020 report “Decarcerating Correctional Facilities during COVID-19: Advancing Health, Equity, and Safety” were licensed physicians.  

To be clear, the safety of the Houston area is a valid concern for these lawmakers. In fact, it’s their job. In their amicus brief, they note that there were an additional 124 murders in 2020, that “at least 90 people killed in Harris County from 2018 to present were killed by Harris County defendants on various bonds” and that “dog walking is not even safe” anymore.

But the sources supporting these contentions fall short. One is a press release from the governor’s office that cites “an alarming rise” in road rage incidents but doesn’t quantify them. Another is a Jan. 19 tweet from an account that purports to belong to Victims' Advocate at an organization called Crime Stoppers in Houston. The tweet contains a picture of a computer screen with results simply typed. Notably, none of the data appears on Crime Stoppers’ website, which was updated as recently as Jan. 22.   

There is an increase in road rage and the part about the dogs is correct: One dog was shot to death and another kidnapped in Houston; a teenager was kidnapped while taking her dog out in Oliverson’s district.  

But there’s no indication that these crimes were committed by people released from the Harris County Jail to alleviate pandemic pressure.  

And it’s not a lack of dangerousness that springs detainees in Harris County; it’s pliability in a courtroom. The same people that Oliverson and his colleagues are trying to keep inside will likely be released immediately - as long as they plead guilty.  

Elizabeth Rossi, senior attorney at Civil Rights Corps and a plaintiff’s attorney in this lawsuit, told me via email: “A review of numerous felony case files in Harris County has shown that many of the people detained in the jail, including those charged with serious felony offenses, will be released as soon as they plead guilty. Detaining people who are presumed innocent is almost never about public safety and is almost always about giving prosecutors and judges leverage to coerce guilty pleas and process cases.”  

If not the others, then at least Rep. Oliverson should rethink his opposition to Sheriff Gonzalez decarcerating the Harris County Jail. Continuing to fight Gonzalez puts him at odds with his oath. It’s also a downright cold thing to do.

Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at outlawcolumn@gmail.com.