Harris Co. halts inmate releases after 1st offenders leave jail

Jessica Willey Image
Saturday, April 4, 2020
Harris Co. halts inmate releases after 1st offenders leave jail
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About a dozen medically-vulnerable inmates were the first to be released from Harris County Jail on Friday.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Hours after a dozen medically-vulnerable inmates were released from jail Friday, Harris County has halted additional releases, citing a court order.

The order signed by the region's administrative judge, Herb Ritchie, couldn't be any clearer. It directs county criminal justice agencies to "ignore and wholly disregard any order and/or directive from the Harris County Judge regarding the (release of felony inmates) now in custody."

Judge Ritchie reminds Sheriff Ed Gonzalez violations of the no-release could result in six months of jail time for contempt or fines for the county's top law enforcer. The order closes the jail door - at least for now - to any compassionate or public health driven release program that County Judge Lina Hidalgo wanted to implement.

Fifty minutes after it was signed, Gonzalez tweeted about the stoppage, adding it is a legal matter and he will wait for further information.

Under Friday's court order, Ritchie states district court judges can order the release of jail inmates, not the county judge.

FULL DOCUMENT: Judge Herb Ritchie's order to halt Harris Co. jail inmate releases

In response, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo insisted an outbreak inside the jail would be a heavy burden on an already overworked hospital system.

"We are reviewing the order and hoping for a swift resolution because the health of every Harris county resident is at stake," she said in a statement. "Health authorities have warned us that an outbreak of COVID-19 in the county jail would be catastrophic to the community at large, because it would drain hospital resources at a time when they are most needed."

Earlier this week, Hidalgo signed an order to release about 1,000 non-violent inmates in an effort to address a "ticking time bomb" behind jail walls.

SEE MORE: Judge Hidalgo signs order to release up to 1,000 inmates

ABC13's Ted Oberg reported the initial release Friday was the first of many that was supposed to take place over the next several days.

Hidalgo vowed that no one with a violent criminal past would be able to step foot outside the jail. She also said released offenders would still have to face the charges against them. No counts would be written off.

Reginald Coombs was one of the first inmates released before the order was halted.

"Ready to go home," Coombs told ABC13. "They're not giving anybody. That space is supposed to be there keeping everybody in there crammed in like sardines."

Other inmates complained there were no gloves or masks available for them inside the jail.

Before the releases were halted, 13 Investigates found some inmates that didn't seem to fit the program. Friday morning, the County Judge - Justice Administration Division released a list of the first 13 "Nonviolent Offenders Under Temporary Release Order." Most were non-violent, but court records show a few had lengthy criminal histories: One had at least 8 theft charges; another had 15 past arrests.

Neither of them would have been disqualified for release under Judge Hidalgo's original order.

However, one accused felon who was released had been accused in the past with having a deadly weapon in a Texas prison, and court records show another had been charged with aggravated assault.

In 2015, Guadalupe Cobian was arrested for aggravated assault after a chase and shooting in New Caney. News reports and court records from the time show he shot through the windshield of a car driven by another man he was in an argument with.

Court records also show Cobian was convicted of aggravated assault, which he pleaded down to deadly conduct. 13 Investigates found the records, and so did the Harris County District Attorney. The district attorney objected to Cobian's release, but a district court judge still let the previously convicted felon go Friday morning.

WATCH: Judge Hidalgo talks about health of inmates during pandemic

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