Over the last couple of years, inspections have found incorrect documentation of suicidal inmates, dozens of inoperable doors and inmates smoking synthetic weed called "K2" at the county jail, also known as the Lew Sterrett Justice Center. Inmates and staffers have also complained about the conditions inside the jail. Since 2020, inmates and staff have filed lawsuits against the jail over these conditions and over lax measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19. The Dallas County Sheriff's Office, which operates the jail, did not respond to request for comment.
Carvell Bowens, an organizer with Texas Organizing Project, said the topic has come up in the group's recent discussions about providing polling stations for jail inmates.
“We feel like jail is a last measure in any sort of way, and it’s really something that’s not working in our nation period. With that, we’ve addressed things like jail conditions,” Bowens said. “Within trying to change the system we have now, we want to make sure people who are entering the system, their rights are not being infringed upon. … A lot of our membership has concerns about Lew Sterrett not passing the jail conditions.”
Next month, the Dallas County Commissioners Court will name members of a committee that will look into whether a new jail should be built. Once that committee is formed, it could take another year before it hands commissioners a recommendation.
The current jail has about 7,200 beds for inmates. According to The Dallas Morning News, the jail is nearing capacity, with 88% of its beds in use as of mid-August. If the population ever reached capacity, the county may have to pay to house additional inmates elsewhere.
The new jail, if approved, would be smaller. To make that work, county commissioners say the new jail would be used only for violent offenders, instead of those with addiction and mental health issues.
Dallas County Commissioner Elba Garcia is chair of the facilities committee, which is responsible for helping maintain the county’s facilities. Garcia said the county jail is about to be 50 years old. Altogether, the jail's age, the lawsuits and the two failed inspections got Garcia and the rest of the members of the facilities committee talking.
“How do we change the system so minor offenders are rehabilitated or helped not in a county jail?” – Elba Garcia, Dallas County Commissioners Court
“What has changed?” Garcia said the committee asked itself about the jail. The answer is a lot. The intake process has changed, there are more people in the jail suffering from mental health issues and it’s harder to retain staff, Garcia said. “The current site is becoming obsolete,” she said.
If a new, smaller jail were created solely for violent offenders in place of Lew Sterrett, there’s still the question of where the rest would go. The commissioners don’t have all the answers yet, but Garcia said some of the other inmates shouldn’t be in a county jail anyway. “How do we change the system so minor offenders are rehabilitated or helped not in a county jail?” Garcia asked.
“The county jail is not the place for them to be, not only because it’s not the humane thing, but also because we all know it costs you more to have someone in jail – around $80 a day – versus giving them the services, the treatment and the medications that they need to be part of society and reintegrate the ones that can be reintegrated into society.”
The process is still in the early stages, and Garcia hasn’t chosen her appointee yet for the committee that will probe the proposal. Still, she said, “For me, I want to look at how we can change the way it operates, be ahead of the ball, be ahead of jail standards, change the process as it is.”