'A Petri dish ready to explode’: After complaints about masks by inmates, sheriff says supply at jail will quadruple soon

Recently released inmates describe tense atmosphere inside jail as COVID-19 figures climb

SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar on Friday said two large shipments of masks arriving in the coming days should more than quadruple the supply for inmates to wear as the number of COVID-19 cases inside the facility continues to rise.

Fifteen inmates, 21 deputies and several auxiliary civilian employees had tested positive for the deadly virus as of Friday.

A vast majority of those positive results have come back within the past week.

Multiple people released from the jail this week described a tense atmosphere inside the facility as inmates learned of more and more positive tests. At least three inmates told KSAT that they have worn the same mask for several days.

“It wasn’t really until the last week that people were really on edge and concerned,” said Sharon Frere, who had been at the jail since Feb. 15 on a warrant from a years-old drug case and a recent charge of failure to identify.

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“It’s horrible. It’s like a Petri dish ready to explode,” said Frere.

Frere said she was given a mask less than a week before her release but was forced to wear the same one for the remainder of her stay after jailers told her there were no more masks available for her.

“It was like, just all cloth. By the time I walked out and got released it was literally falling apart and disintegrating,” said Frere.

A BCSO spokeswoman confirmed Friday that seven of the 15 inmates who have tested positive were housed at the jail annex, where Frere was incarcerated.

Five units at the annex are currently in quarantine and three of the 21 deputies who have tested positive for COVID-19 worked in that area of the detention center, the spokeswoman said.

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Alejandro Alvarado, who was released Friday after being in custody for four months on a drug charge, said he ended up having to poke holes in the mask he wore for more than a week in order to fix the strings that held it on his face.

The mask Alvarado was wearing also developed a hole in the middle of it, raising doubts that it was still effective.

BCSO officials on Friday pushed back on claims made by several inmates that the facility had run out of masks altogether, but did acknowledge that they have had to be selective on how they have handed them out.

“We do realize that can be problematic as more inmates test positive and we have to change them out more frequently,” Salazar said in recorded remarks that were later shared with KSAT 12 by an agency spokesman.

Salazar said the agency has a “pretty decent” supply of close to 10,000 masks for inmates but said two separate orders of 20,000 masks and 23,000 masks arriving in the coming days will more than quadruple the supply.

Multiple jailers, meanwhile, have also complained about the quality of masks handed out to them.

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy-nominated photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.