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A socially distanced group of officials and business owners attended the Portland Chamber of Commerce's annual Holiday with Heroes luncheon.

The Portland Chamber of Commerce hosted a Holiday with Heroes luncheon where San Patricio County Sheriff Oscar Rivera talked about 2020 and how the sheriff’s department and county jail has made it through.

“One of the biggest priorities we have in our system is, of course, to take care of a county jail,” San Patricio County Sheriff Oscar Rivera said.

With that being said, he began the tale of COVID-19 in the county.

“So come March of 2020, we had our first positive case, in San Patricio County. It was a young lady that came from Central Texas to visit her mom. And – oh my God – the phone started ringing off the wall with people saying, ‘She needs to be in jail; how dare she come to our county and infect all our children.’

“And it went on and on and on. And this was the beginning. This is the beginning.”

Most residents know by now that more and more residents turned up positive for COVID-19 with mask orders put in place and police officers having to enforce stay-at-home orders, especially for those refusing to quarantine even after testing positive.

“But the life in the jail never changed,” Rivera added. “We’re still having to pick up prisoners all over the state because people get arrested.

“And then the problem arises with what do you do with the jail? What about all these infected people in the jail? Believe it or not, we have none. We have had zero cases.”

The issues the jail did have was the employees coming into contact with their own families. Some employees had close calls and were forced to quarantine at home which created another problem; a lack of people available to work.

Rivera said he was lucky that none of his deputies tested positive either while they continued to do face-to-face traffic stops and calls.

Another issue Rivera highlighted was the fact that he had inmates waiting for jury trials, some for more than two years. Jury trials were shut down to keep people safe and were only opened back up recently.

He said that they had 11 inmates waiting for a jury trial so they all got tested with only one being chosen in a lottery type system. When he went to trial, he immediately pleaded guilty so the entire long process was essentially a waste.

One of Sheriff Rivera’s biggest concerns over the year was mental health inmates the jail was housing, waiting to be sent to Rusk State Hospital, the only state facility equipped to help them.

“And something no one wants to talk about is do these belong in a jail?” Rivera said. “Well, in some cases you have no choice because they’ve killed someone or injured someone or they committed some serious crimes. 

“But there’s no place for them. Just today I was looking at the roster and saw we have an inmate from Portland who’s been there 785 days awaiting for a bed in Rusk State so that we can get some help.

“So what have we done with this inmate for 785 days to help his problem? Zero, except housing him in a cell.”

He added there are two others waiting for a bed at the hospital as well.

“About 15 years ago we had about 45,000 beds for mental health,” he said. “Today, we have a little less than 5,000 forensic beds available. There are only 10 facilities in the state, but only one handles the psychiatric people that we have in jail.”

He said that the inmate from Portland was finally sent to the state hospital last week.

“We’re trying to keep people as safe as we can,” the sheriff said. “We can make it work. It’s going to take a little bit, but we’ll get there. We’re still making road trips to pick up inmates, and we’re still housing people left and right.

“Hopefully we’ll have a better Christmas and things will be better next year. I’m looking forward to Windfest and the days we can meet face-to-face again.”

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