Demonstrators organized a caravan outside the Hays County Historic Courthouse and Law Enforcement Center June 30 demanding the release of pretrial detainees from jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The demonstration, organized by Karen Muñoz and Tomas Diaz de Leon, was in response to reports of inmates diagnosed with COVID-19 in the county facility. As of June 24, the jail reports 30 inmates with the virus and 37 awaiting test results.
Prior to the caravan, demonstrators met at Eddie Durham Park in San Marcos, placing signs, balloons and posters advocating for the release of inmates on their vehicles and discussing the day’s course of action.
The caravan then gathered and traveled to the courthouse—during the same time a weekly County Commissioners Court meeting took place—where demonstrators drove around the building numerous times repeatedly honking their horns. It proceeded to the county jail, where they continued honking their horns while driving around the building parking lot. The group completed the demonstration after returning to the courthouse one final time.
Muñoz, de Leon and others, who said the caravan was about raising awareness for inmates at severe risk of contracting COVID-19, said they demand Hays County Sheriff Gary Cutler ask the Commissioners Court to grant him the authority to release inmates as necessary during the pandemic, release all detainees from Hays County Jail, public transparency and more.
“People keep acting like the [Hays County jail] is a prison,” Muñoz said. “What we’re asking is for [the county] to treat people who haven’t even been convicted [of a crime] like humans.”
de Leon said knowing there are inmates, who have not been to trial yet, sitting in the jail during the pandemic makes him angry.
“There’s no reason that they need to be in the jail,” de Leon said. “Again, that’s just putting them more at risk than they already are of catching COVID-19.”
In response to the caravan demonstration, Hays County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Dennis Gutierrez said the office “has nothing to do with releasing the people”, adding they would need a court order from a criminal court to release inmates or the inmates would have to post bond. He said the Commissioners Court does not have the authority to request that the sheriff release people.
In an earlier email to The Star from Gutierrez regarding the jail’s safety and mask policy, he stated officers and inmates are provided with masks; medical personnel and corrections staff have spoken to the inmates and have advised them of the importance of donning the masks; inmates have the option of wearing masks when they are in their housing area; and officers are required to wear masks in the secure area of the jail facility.
Gutierrez said inmates were provided with literature on handwashing, cleaning supplies (including hand sanitizer) and other resources to keep them safe. He said the jail began mass testing throughout the facility, tests are still pending and the facility will update the public on the most recent numbers as soon as July 1.
In response to the jail stating it provided inmates masks, Thomas Just, an attorney for some inmates in the jail, said, to date, those he represents have not received masks.
“Let me put this politely: The statement by [Gutierrez]—those were lies,” Just said. “When [inmates] ask for [a mask], they’re told that they have to fill out an application; when they ask for an application, they’re told they have to be showing active signs of symptoms of COVID-19. I am not aware of a single [inmate] at this point who has been given a mask.”
Just said he visited the jail in recent weeks and saw “none” of the [inmates] with masks and “a lot” of guards, with no masks, not social distancing. He said he is filing habeas motions and working to get bond reductions where possible.
“Certain prosecutors are adding extra charges right now and setting the bonds at sky-high, nose bleed amounts,” Just said. “My clients are poor; they don’t have half-a-million dollars laying around; I’m just basically doing everything I can to get my clients out of jail because I have no hope of realistically trying to get [Cutler] to shape up and do what’s right here—that’s a lost cause.”
In the meantime, Muñoz said she and others will continue to push their comprehensive demands and encourage people to use whatever means necessary to incite change.
“We’re going to make sure they hear us,” Muñoz said. “I don’t know what that means yet, but if they don’t listen then obviously our [efforts] are going to have to escalate.”