Crime

Texas Jail Agency Opaque About 'Criminal Investigation' into Dallas County Jail Death

A third party agency is investigating the death of a Dallas County Jail inmate on suicide watch.
A third party agency is investigating the death of a Dallas County Jail inmate on suicide watch. Pixabay
At the time Terry Stewart died in Dallas County Jail earlier this month, he was being held in a solitary confinement cell in the suicide watch wing, where jailers are meant to monitor detainees 24 hours a day and do the rounds every 15 minutes.

Stewart's death came amid a staffing crisis, and only a few months after Deron Tolbert, who was also in the jail's suicide watch unit, died in December. According to their own internal reports, jailers were unaware of the emergency situations in both Tolbert’s and Stewart’s cells until fellow inmates in neighboring cells managed to alert them.

Now, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards says an independent law enforcement agency is conducting a criminal investigation into Stewart's death, although TCJS wouldn't specify which agency that is. (News of the investigation was first reported by KERA last week.)

Brandon Wood, TCJS's executive director, told the Observer that an "outside investigation" was being "conducted by law enforcement to determine if there are any criminal violations that may have occurred."

Stewart's death took place only weeks after TCJS inspectors gave Dallas County Jail its second consecutive failing grade on its annual inspection. Inspectors cited inadequate monitoring of incarcerated people held in suicide watch as one of the violations in the report.

TCJS's Wood wouldn't identify the specific agency conducting the investigation into Stewart’s death, but added that Texas law requires investigation of all in-custody deaths by an agency other than the sheriff’s office and the TCJS. After Sandra Bland died in Waller County Jail in 2014, reportedly by suicide, lawmakers passed the Sandra Bland Act, which aimed to add layers of accountability and oversight for county jails.

The act requires that the Texas Department of Public Safety appoints “a law enforcement agency other than that who operates the county jail where an inmate’s death happened to investigate that inmate’s death."

It doesn’t stop local sheriff’s departments from conducting their own separate investigations, however. Dallas County jailers said that a criminal investigation division in the sheriff’s office is also probing Stewart’s death, adding that this is a routine step when someone dies in the custody of the sheriff’s office.

A 2018 TCJS memo sent to local law enforcement also states: “All deaths shall be investigated by another law enforcement agency/entity (such as the Texas Rangers, District Attorney’s Office, Medical Examiner’s Office, local police department, etc.) as long as no conflicts of interest exist. A primary and secondary investigating agency/entity shall be submitted for review and approval by the Commission.”

The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

News of the investigation comes following months of reports, from inmates and jail staff alike, detailing hazardous conditions inside Dallas County Jail.

The commission’s report cited the jail for failing to provide clean uniforms and towels to inmates in mental health “crisis care” at least once a week. Last fall, people held at Dallas County Jail went weeks without clean clothes. Jailers said that they were forced to keep working overtime shifts even after two jailers died of COVID-19.

“We don’t have enough people,” Dallas County Commissioner Elba Garcia recently said when asked about the biggest problems plaguing the jail. Garcia said she hopes to incentivize potential applicants by increasing salaries for jailers, especially those assigned to overnight shifts.

Krishnaveni Gundu, co-founder and executive director of the Texas Jail Project, said that Stewart's death reflects a growing problem in Texas jails.

“Mr. Stewart's suicide in Dallas County Jail, one of 31 reported custody deaths in Texas county jails this year, is doubly tragic in that it's not the least bit unusual,” said Krishnaveni Gundu, executive director and co-founder of Texas Jail Project.

“These deaths are a symptom of a growing humanitarian crisis in our overcrowded jails which is a result of gross overcharging by prosecutors driven by a punitive culture that criminalizes homelessness, mental illness and disabilities while ignoring the root causes of poverty and health inequities,” Gundu said.
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Michael Murney is a staff writer 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