As COVID-19 Spreads, a Fight to Shutter Parts of Dallas County Jail

Corrections officers, inmates and advocates say COVID-19 has worsened life in Dallas County Jail.
Corrections officers, inmates and advocates say COVID-19 has worsened life in Dallas County Jail. Getty Images
Bette knows the day she started to lose her son. It was eight years ago, when Cole (not his real name) lost his baby girl.

Father and daughter had already built a relationship; when Cole talked to his girlfriend’s belly, the baby would kick in reply.

“They went to the hospital expecting to take a baby home like we had done with his sister’s son just nine days before,” Bette said by phone in late July. “They get to the hospital, and the baby doesn’t have a heartbeat.”

Eight excruciating hours later, Cole’s daughter emerged stillborn. There are some things you can never un-see, his mother explained. That’s one of them.

Just two months later, the mother of one of Cole’s children was struck and killed by a drunk driver. He started tattooing his body “like crazy,” his mom said: one arm was adorned with angels, while the other arm was covered in dark black. People introduced him to meth, and he started getting arrested.

Now, with drug charges pending in Dallas and Denton County, Cole is one of the more than 5,000 people incarcerated in Dallas County Jail. Acting on behalf of her son, Bette has made calls and sent letters to just about everyone she can think of.

She called the jail itself, but all she got was a recording. She sent Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins two letters, but he hasn’t yet responded. She’s not trying to make excuses for her son — “He’s not exempt from his bad behavior or his poor choices,” she said — but the longer he’s locked in Dallas’ notoriously understaffed and overpopulated jail, the more she worries.

“He told me, ‘These people are coughing,’” Bette recalled. “‘Some of them are looking really bad.’”

Nearly a year-and-a-half after the pandemic first struck, advocates, attorneys, incarcerated people and some of their jailers say not much has changed inside Dallas County Jail. The jail and Sheriff Marian Brown have been under fire throughout the pandemic, with a recently delayed lawsuit over the jail’s conditions still in the courts.

Now, as the Delta variant spreads without action from Brown, some organizers are calling for a big change they feel is long overdue: a population reduction.

“We were at a point of crisis years ago,” said Krishnaveni Gundu, the co-founder and executive director of the Texas Jail Project. "When you have a reduced population, guards can actually have the capacity to treat incarcerated people like human beings.”

“She was truly lost in the system. That happens all the time.” - Desira Brown, Faith in Texas

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Desira Brown and Tiara Cooper, both organizers with the grassroots movement Faith in Texas, have experienced firsthand the dehumanization that occurs at Dallas County Jail. Both women have been incarcerated, and they now speak with county staff about divestment.

“We want to divest directly from this harmful institution and put money back into the community,” Cooper said. By closing a single tower (the jail complex contains a north, south and west tower) Cooper argues the county could funnel millions into job, housing and after-school programs.

According to data from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, taxpayers spend more than $25,000 to incarcerate pretrial defendants on misdemeanor charges; closing a tower would release more than 1,000 people.

Cooper and Desira Brown are also quick to point out that the sheriff has the power to release certain misdemeanor offenders at the point of booking. This would ensure people like Brown, who was incarcerated in 2012, wouldn’t have to wait as many as 13 hours before a bond meeting.

“I met a woman in the jail who had been there for four months without knowing the status of her case, who her lawyer was, anything,” Brown said. “She was truly lost in the system. That happens all the time.”

Thus far, Cooper says county staff has been receptive to discussions about investment, but less receptive to the word “divestment.”

“They’re deeply on the fence,” she said. Still, Cooper, Brown and their colleagues are continuing to gather stories from incarcerated people. In the coming months, they plan to exert more pressure on county commissioners.

“There’s a real non-willingness to decarcerate, even though people are showing you they’re dying,” Cooper said. “It’s a public health crisis.”

Dawson State Jail was shuttered, the pair of organizers argued, so why can’t parts of Dallas County Jail be closed?

Jessica Pishko, an attorney, journalist and expert on jails and sheriffs, believes efforts to reduce the jail’s population will face a unique challenge.

"The biggest hurdles they face are not legal or technical but political,” Pishko said. “Is there enough political will? Right now, they seem more worried about giving the police more money, and the narrative that releasing people from jail presents an imminent danger is always really popular in Dallas."

Pishko is researching a book about the power and impunity enjoyed by sheriffs, and she doesn’t get why Sheriff Brown seems to not be taking action.

"My question is, what is she exactly doing? What is she spending money on? She has said nothing, and it doesn’t seem like she’s changed anything to change her practices."

Sheriff Brown and her office have kept quiet throughout much of the pandemic. The sheriff’s office confirmed they received an email about this story, but a spokesman didn’t respond to questions or a follow-up. When this paper published a story about a protest that occurred inside jail walls in late 2020, Brown sent a letter to the Observer referring to the story as “yellow journalism.” (The sheriff and her office have repeatedly claimed the protest did not take place, despite several witness statements to the contrary.)

Meanwhile, Brown’s employees say they are often threatened over talking to the press or anyone outside the “chain of command.” Several corrections officers contacted for this story refused to comment or didn't respond to texts and calls, while the few who agreed to talk repeatedly emphasized the fear they feel for speaking out. Those guards painted a picture of a workplace plagued by miscommunication.

“I would not say morale is high, to say the least,” one officer said.

Another officer said officers and incarcerated people alike often don’t know who has been tested, who has been vaccinated and who has been sick. Both tests and vaccinations are occasionally happening, though it appears the jail has found an unusual incentive.

“My son told me if you get the shot, they’ll give you a Honey Bun,” Bette said.

After what felt like endless hours of making phone calls and writing letters, Bette found Gundu and the Texas Jail Project. According to the organization’s website, the project aims to hold jails accountable by “informing the public and lawmakers about civil rights violations, structural racism, and the punitive attitudes” underlying the mistreatment of incarcerated people.

“People ask me all the time, ‘What’s the deal with my case?’ ‘When can I see a doctor?’” - Corrections officer

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When reached for comment on this story, Gundu was in the midst of several phone calls with parents like Bette. For some, like the case of an ill, Spanish-speaking man whose parents fear he will die in incarceration, Gundu and her team file official complaints with the sheriff’s office.

Other times she focuses on storytelling, amplifying the voices of people who would otherwise go unheard. It’s grueling work that Gundu knows can easily take its toll. Yet over Zoom in late July, she's still motivated.

"There is a direct correlation,” she explained, “between the decrease in mental health funding and the increase in jail populations.”

Gundu is from India, and she has vivid memories of walking down city streets brimming with people enduring extreme poverty and homelessness. It’s overwhelming, so much so that you risk becoming indifferent to your own neighbors’ hardships.

Friends from the West would visit Gundu and wonder how people could simply pass by an impoverished child without so much as a glance, and Gundu would explain that people “shut their hearts” to the suffering. In her view, it’s similar to the way corrections officers interact with incarcerated people every day: There’s just too many people, too much struggle, and the ones who want to help don’t know where to begin. The volume is too great, the system too large.

“People ask me all the time, ‘What’s the deal with my case?’ ‘When can I see a doctor?’” one corrections officer said by phone. “I never know what to tell them.”

Later, that same officer shared that an incarcerated person had died in early August at Parkland Hospital. (The sheriff’s office did not confirm or deny this.)

It wasn’t Cole, but it could’ve been. “It’s not just my son,” Bette said. “Everyone in there has a story. These aren’t death penalty cases, but they don’t have a voice.”
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Tyler Hicks was born in Austin, but he grew up in Dallas. He typically claims one or the other, depending on which is most convenient. His work has appeared in Texas Monthly, Truthout, The Texas Observer and many other publications.
Contact: Tyler Hicks