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Did Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown Let COVID-19 Hit Jails Hard?

A lawsuit in federal court claiming that Dallas County Iail inmates were denied adequate protection from COVID-19 has been delayed by a judge's order.
A lawsuit in federal court claiming that Dallas County Iail inmates were denied adequate protection from COVID-19 has been delayed by a judge's order. Pixabay
The lawsuit paints a grim picture inside Dallas County Jail. As COVID-19 spread behind bars, the inmates claimed that tests were rare, quarantines were inconsistent and there was scarce access to personal protective equipment like masks and disposable gloves.

Even jail staff admitted how poor conditions were as the coronavirus ripped though the jailed population, according to the lawsuit filed on behalf of nine detainees last April. "I don’t know what these people want you to do," a staff member allegedly told an inmate. "Die first?"

Filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas, the lawsuit accuses Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown, whose department oversees the county jail, of neglecting to protect detainees from the virus, placing them at serious risk of infection or death.

But on Wednesday, a federal judge ordered a halt to the ongoing lawsuit, a move that will allow the court to work through a growing backlog of motions, and canceled an upcoming trial date meant to take place on July 27. The judge hasn't yet set a new trial date.


Judge Ada Brown’s order is the latest in a case that has been pending for more than a year. The ACLU said authorities' several failures violated detainees’ constitutional right to due process.

"This is a lawsuit that could be resolved if the county takes some small steps to keep people safe in the jail." - Brian Klosterboer, ACLU of Texas

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Sheriff Brown, who filed a request to dismiss the case some two weeks ago, has argued that she has taken appropriate measures to protect detainees.

"[T]he federal judge issued an order vacating the upcoming trial setting and staying the case until certain pre-trial motions are ruled upon by the court," a Dallas County District Attorney's Office spokesperson said by email. "Our office has no comment regarding the pending litigation and will await further rulings from the court."

The halt comes as the Delta variant fuels a resurgence in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations statewide. But after the pandemic struck early last year, the virus hit jails hard and early.

By November last year, Texas facilities emerged as the worst hotspots in the country, with incarcerated people in local jails and state prisons testing positive at a rate 490% higher than the state’s general population.

In the past, women who were jailed in Dallas County told the Observer that they were only given Mucinex and Tylenol as they battled coronavirus infections and grew increasingly ill. "I just want people to know how bad it can get in there," one woman said. "I want people to know about my girls."

In local jails, the majority of those who died of COVID-19 were in the "pretrial" phase, not yet convicted of a crime. A report from the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Public Affairs found that 80% of those who died after catching the virus in Texas county jails were pretrial. As of July 1, Dallas County Jail held more than 5,300 people, of which about 3 out of 4 were considered pretrial.

Brian Klosterboer, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas, said authorities shouldn't have to wait on the court's eventual ruling to protect those currently in lockup, especially at a time when the Delta variant could put inmates at heightened risk.

"This is a lawsuit that could be resolved if the county takes some small steps to keep people safe in the jail," Klosterboer said. "They’ve spent over a million dollars litigating and fighting these [lawsuits] instead of putting those taxpayer dollars into actually solving some of these problems."
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Michael Murney is a reporting fellow at the Dallas Observer and a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. His reporting has appeared in Chicago’s South Side Weekly and the Chicago Reader.
Contact: Michael Murney