Risking the public's health and safety, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards is using a reckless exemption to the Public Information Act to conceal COVID-19 testing data. It's even withholding the criteria for such tests in county jails across the state, raising troubling questions about whether most jails even test for the coronavirus.
Because the Texas Commission on Jail Standards closed for the health emergency, a spokesman said, the office will not respond to public information requests for testing numbers and other information. Sadly, this imprudent response appears to be legal, under an amendment to Texas open records laws, enacted after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
The exemption extends the time governmental bodies may respond to open-records requests to 14 days, instead of 10. But here's the rub: The law also states that days in which public agencies have employees working at home due to a medical emergency are not counted as business days. That means the clock might not start ticking on freedom-of-information requests for months.
The commission's reason for withholding information – a shuttered office – is beyond lame. This is not 1950, when public records were kept in dusty file cabinets. In the digital era, state employees, who continue to get paid by Texas taxpayers, can access records, as well as respond to open requests, with equal dexterity while working from home.
Open government advocates have vowed to amend this insidious exemption during the next legislative session. Texans, however, can't wait until next year, as they battle a virus that already has killed 1,158 of them and infected 40,000 more. (The official case count is ridiculously low because Texas has one of the nation's lowest testing rates.)
In the midst of a global pandemic that, in Texas, still has not peaked, TCJS is, essentially, telling the people of Texas it can't be bothered to provide, potentially, life-saving information. It also is shirking one of its fundamental responsibilities to the taxpayers of Texas: Keeping government open and transparent.
Nationwide, county jails and state and federal prisons are breeding grounds for the coronavirus, posing health risks far beyond their locked gates. Texas' 250 county jails are a virtual revolving door, cycling 1 million people in and out of their communities every year.
At any given time, Texas jails hold nearly 70,000 prisoners. Extrapolating from testing rates in Texas prisons, it's reasonable to assume 50,000 jail inmates carry the coronavirus. It's practically certain the disease infects every jail in Texas.
Even so, the Commission on Jail Standards reported last week that less than 5 percent of the Texas jails – or 11 – have confirmed cases of COVID-19. (Anderson County has not reported cases.) TCJS also reported about 1,200 jail prisoners have the coronavirus. No one who isn't deluded or in denial would take those figures seriously.
State agencies, hospitals, and clinics need good information on COVID-19 testing to identify coronavirus hot spots, take preventive measures, and allocate scarce resources. The people need it, too, to protect themselves and others.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards should not use an insidious, and needless, exemption to state law to conceal data that is vital to the people's health and safety. It ought to release that information now.