Activists Demand Inmates Be Released From County Jail After Positive COVID-19 Test

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
Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown said her office had been preparing for months for the news it got Wednesday morning. Procedures were in place, she said, to deal with the positive coronavirus test that hit the Dallas County jail.

"For the past two weeks, we have received numerous inquiries regarding any positive COVID cases among our inmates and our employees," Brown said. "We assured you that when and if it came to it, that you would be notified. This is where we are today. ... This is something that we hoped would not come to pass, but it is what we have. This is why we have plans in place already to manage this situation."

Brown said the sheriff's department was better equipped than most agencies to deal with the novel coronavirus, because it always has equipment on hand to deal with infectious diseases.

The sheriff's confidence is not enough for activists or the family members of those currently locked up in Lew Sterrett Justice Center.

Dominique Alexander, the founder of the Next Generation Action Network, followed Brown's press conference Wednesday with one of his own. Given the conditions of the jail, he said, county officials must act to relieve crowding and ensure inmate safety.

"It's not clean in that jail on a normal day," Alexander said. "We must get these people released. It's important."

Chanta Baker said that her brother, Keith Baker, told her he was living in the same pod as the man who tested positive. He'd been moved to the pod, he said, because a guard watching his previous pod had to be tested for the virus.

"When he asked for a mask, (the guards) told him he couldn't get a mask." — Chanta Baker

tweet this
Wednesday morning, shortly before being moved again, Chanta Baker said, her brother saw four inmates leaving the pods in masks.

"When he asked for a mask, (the guards) told him he couldn't get a mask," Baker said of her brother, "and he's asthmatic."

Brown said only four inmates in the pod with the man who tested positive exhibited coronavirus symptoms. Baker's brother wasn't one of them.

After the positive test, Keith Baker told his sister that he'd been moved to a different pod in the jail's West Tower and isolated. He's been told he'll be there for the next 14 days.
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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