Dallas County Jail Inmates Sue Sheriff over Coronavirus Conditions

Dallas County's Lew Sterrett Justice Center. Close quarters and little social distance.
Dallas County's Lew Sterrett Justice Center. Close quarters and little social distance. Andres Praefcke
Nine Dallas County jail inmates are suing Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown over conditions at the jail. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which is representing the inmates, the group is seeking the immediate release of all inmates older than 50, in addition to those who are "most vulnerable to contracting the novel coronavirus."

According to the ACLU, inmates are in close quarters and don't have any way to protect themselves from the virus. In its most recent report, Dallas County said 22 inmates and 12 employees at the jail had tested positive for COVID-19.

“People’s lives are at stake here, and we’re asking the court to take immediate action,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. “Everyone is on high alert during the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to do the right thing; we’re making sure that our vulnerable loved ones in jail don’t get left behind and have a way out.”

The lawsuit claims that the jail is not checking the temperatures of incoming employees, is short-staffed and has failed to put physical-distancing practices in place, despite CDC guidelines. The Dallas County Sheriff's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

“People’s lives are at stake here, and we’re asking the court to take immediate action.” – Terri Burke

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"Jails are not hermetically sealed. By their nature, the people who enter jails — from correctional and medical staff, to those detained prior to trial, to those serving short sentences — typically come out in very short order," the suit says. "The failure of Dallas County Jail to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 endangers not only those within the institution, but the entire community.

"Hence, swift release of the most vulnerable to the disease and implementation of public health and education protocols in the jail, are the only mitigation efforts that the Dallas County Jail can undertake to comport with public health guidance and to prevent a catastrophic outbreak at the facility."

An internal jail memo obtained by The Dallas Morning News earlier this week revealed that jail employees have been instructed to clean the surgical masks they're wearing with alcohol or Lysol. The sheriff's department told the Morning News that it had an adequate supply of personal protective equipment to provide a mask to every employee at the jail.

The memo said that if every employee was given a new mask every day, the facility would run out of masks in a few days.

Continuing to keep everyone in the jail now locked up will only lead to more infections and deaths, according to the ACLU.

"Failure to act now will yield exponentially more infections, hospitalizations and deaths in both the jail and the larger Dallas community," said Andrea Woods, staff attorney at the ACLU Criminal Law Project. "Public health experts agree that, in light of these unprecedented circumstances, officials must immediately release the most vulnerable persons from jail. Relief must be expanded and accelerated in the Dallas County Jail to avoid the worst-case scenario. The timeline to act is hours and days, not weeks."
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young