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'It's pretty much hell on earth': Inmates complain about worsened conditions at jail since pandemic

Complaints of delayed meals, confined spaces, soiled masks and scarcity of soap are among inmates' complaints.

SAN ANTONIO — Glenn Watson, 73, spent nearly two months behind bars at the Bexar County Jail on non-violent charges before he was released April 13. 

Watson saw the development of the novel coronavirus at the jail and all of the changes needing to be made in response to the virus. His release came days after the jail saw its first positive COVID-19 case.

"There was there was a lot of fear," Watson said, adding that his age made him fearful of suffering the worst of the virus. 

Watson said while behind bars, soap was sparse and that often times, inmates would just use water to rinse off. He described having soap as a "treat."

"Every once in a while, we'd have a little bitty ones that would show up," he explained. "That would be donated and broken into little pieces put on the sink."

He spent more than 50 days behind bars before his attorneys with Hoelscher, Gebbia and Cepeda, were able to secure his release.

Attorney Valerie Hedlund said her clients, two of which who are currently at the jail, have voiced complaints similar to Watson's. On Saturday, Hedlund emailed members of the San Antonio Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, notifying them of the conditions her clients complained of at the jail.

"Things are getting really bad," Hedlund wrote, before sharing how her clients said they have worn the same clothes for nearly a week, and have had inconsistent meal times. 

Hedlund wrote, "'everyone is starving,' according to my client."

On Friday, Eyewitness Wants to Know reached out to the Bexar County Sheriff's Office after being told inmates went nearly 13 hours without meals. The Sheriff's Office declined to confirm whether inmates had, in fact, gone 13 hours without eating, only confirming that there was a delay in meals. 

Sheriff Javier Salazar, in a pre-recorded statement sent to KENS 5 by an agency spokesman, said: "We do know there was a bit of disruption to our food service operation." 

Meals are normally prepared by inmate workers, according to the Sheriff's Office. Salazar said the agency had to suspend its inmate worker program after an inmate worker was potentially exposed to the virus. He said last week he contacted Aramark to provide employees to cook the inmates' meals.

Hedlund said the result is that meals are being skipped and the meals they are being served are not appetizing.

In addition to the skipped meals, she said her clients have told her, as Watson alleged, that there is minimal soap or hand sanitizer available for the inmates.

The Sheriff's Office previously told KENS 5 inmates are given a bar of soap on a weekly basis. Though, Hedlund said they can go through the hotel-sized bars of soap quickly through showers and hand washing.

Hedlund said her clients complained that they were asked to make do with their soiled surgical masks due to a low supply.

"He said those had not been traded out in many, many days and they're falling apart," Hedlund said. "What he said was, most inmates were either wearing ones that had holes in them, some had poked holes in the sides of their mask to restring them themselves or they would use a towel to cover their face or nothing at all. But he hadn't seen clean masks in days and days."

In a daily briefing last week, County Judge Nelson Wolff acknowledged there weren't enough masks to give inmates multiples, but said there was a shipment on the way.

Hedlund said her clients have also said they are unable to practice social distancing at the jail, estimating the space between the bunks to be between 6 to 12 inches head to toe.

"My clients are telling me they're pretty concerned because of the mask situation and the sanitary conditions and how the food is," she explained. "If you take everything away from them, including television and getting into common areas, it's pretty much hell on earth in there right now, according to them. I certainly wouldn't want to be there unless I absolutely had to."

Before the virus had infiltrated the jail, Salazar had pushed for the release of non-violent inmates. In the span of a month, the administration reduced the jail population by nearly 1,000 inmates. For the nearly 3,000 inmates still there, local attorneys have said they have had trouble getting in contact with their clients.

Attorney Adam LaHood said he is experiencing growing pains with the jail's new remote video visitation system. He said he's conducted a handful of successful video visitations.

"In the meantime, we're also communicating with letters," LaHood said. "I think I've sent every person that's in custody -- with me, at least -- at least one letter to let them know the status of what's going on."

LaHood said it's important to remember that many of the individuals in custody are merely accused and some are never convicted.

"I think the first thing to remember is that you have what's called the presumption of innocence," LaHood said. "It's a bedrock or cornerstone of our criminal justice system. It's the most profound and powerful presumption that that exists. And a lot of people that are in jail will be released without ever being convicted. We see charges being dismissed -- I had charges against my client dismissed just two weeks ago. So you're saying, 'Well, they shouldn't have done it.' Well, they didn't do it."

LaHood added that even though some are rightfully behind bars, local officials have a responsibility to treat them humanely.

"People that are there in jail are in the ward and custody of the state," LaHood said. "And the state, be it the Bexar County sheriff, the City of San Antonio -- whoever it might be -- has a duty to protect and take care of those inmates that are in their care, custody and control."

The local attorney said he isn't surprised by the growing number of inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19 and commended the agency on some of the measures it's taken to mitigate the spread.

"They're screening, they're testing, they're taking temperatures and they absolutely should be given credit where it's due," LaHood said. "However, there needs to be more done there. Increased isolation, better sanitation, better access, reducing the jail population as much as possible."

He said local criminal defense attorneys, jail administration and prosecutors are actively collaborating to work toward those goals.

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