On the 10th day, the women took off their clothes. It was both an act of protest and a sign of disgust, a rebuke of the north tower guards and staff they believed had been denying them basic care amid a pandemic.
“We had to sit there in our sweat and dirt for days,” says Shelby Hudson, one of the women incarcerated in the north tower at Dallas County Jail. “No one seemed to care.”
In the jail, a “tank” houses nearly 30 people at a time: 14 bunks with two to a bunk. After a woman in the tank known as “7-W-3” tested positive for the coronavirus on Dec. 1, Hudson and 26 other women were quarantined in the tank indefinitely. By Friday, Dec. 11, several of the women told the Dallas Observer, they had gone 10 days without clean clothes. That’s when they decided to take off the crusty, stained uniforms they had been wearing for a week and a half without a wash. Some women wore just their bras and underwear; others were naked.
“We want clothes!” they chanted. “We want clothes!”
Five women incarcerated in the tank who were interviewed for this story claim that the chant lasted half an hour before any guard spoke to the group. They were then promised clean clothing if they agreed to put their dirty uniforms back on, which they did. But according to those five women, the clean clothes wouldn’t arrive for another three days.
“They don’t meet our basic needs,” adds Laedia Mwikuta, another woman incarcerated in the same tank. “If we need toilet paper, it’s a struggle to even get them to listen.”
County jails have been incubators for the virus ever since the pandemic began. A November study from the University of Texas at Austin revealed that 44 of the top 50 COVID-19 hotspots in the United States were jails. That same study showed that 80 percent of people who have died in Texas jails during the pandemic had not been convicted of a crime. In Tarrant County's jail, 15 people have died in custody this year, including three from the coronavirus.
In Dallas, the clothing incident highlights what incarcerated people and some corrections officers say are debilitating conditions inside the county jail. Paused trials, unsanitary conditions and a large population have all contributed to persistent numbers of COVID-19 cases.
“The number of people they have here is just so insane,” says one corrections officer who commented anonymously for fear of retaliation. “Honestly, we just can’t handle the population, and we keep moving people from the south tower to the north tower. I think that’s causing the number of cases to go up.”
Hudson, Mwikuta and the other women in tank 7-3-W say they ultimately got a fresh batch of uniforms on Monday, Dec. 14, 13 days after they were quarantined for exposure to COVID-19. During that time, Hudson says she asked for three separate coronavirus tests, but her request was denied each time, despite her complaining of a persistent fever and a lack of taste and smell, common symptoms of infection.
“You have to keep asking and asking before anyone even notices you,” Hudson says via a phone interview from the jail. “Even then, you’re lucky if they give you any kind of help.”
Another incarcerated woman, Adriana Tijerina, backed up Hudson’s claims.
“It really feels like they don’t care about us,” Tijerina says. “That’s why we did what we did with the clothes. I mean, what else are we supposed to do? What would you do?”
A corrections officer interviewed for this story confirmed that there was a “temporary” shortage of clean clothing. However, a spokesperson from the sheriff’s office denied that the clothing protest ever took place, and said a clerical error caused a delay in the delivery of clean clothes.
“There was a miscommunication on which shift was to distribute the laundry that has since been corrected,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “Inmate laundry is changed out every other day in that area.”
The spokesperson also said that the jail’s administrators have not changed their policy towards incarcerated people who request a test for COVID-19.
“The inmate can request to be seen by medical staff at any time during their incarceration by submitting an inmate request form to an officer and they will be seen within 24 hours by medical staff,” they wrote.
That claim conflicts with what several incarcerated women shared via a series of late December phone calls from the jail. Many women shared that they have had difficulty getting enough toilet paper, soap or tampons, let alone a coronavirus test. Hudson says she and several other women, including Brittany Slade, resorted to washing their clothes with body wash and hanging them to dry by their bunks, a process that makes the uniforms rusty and even more uncomfortable.
“Ask [corrections officers] for anything, and they’ll probably just walk away,” Slade says. “They don’t give a fuck.”
Corrections officers have grievances, too. Another officer who agreed to speak anonymously said he is troubled by the way the jail frequently moves incarcerated men and women between the south tower and the north tower, often without testing everyone they are moving. One officer who works in the south tower claims he was forced to come into work despite being exposed to an incarcerated person who tested positive for the coronavirus.
“The culture of the jail and the sheriff’s office is you don’t say anything that might imply they aren’t doing everything they can to keep people safe,” said one of the officers, “even if they’re clearly endangering you and your friends.”
Meanwhile, Hudson’s COVID-19 fears are heightened by news from home: Her niece and her two children have all tested positive for the coronavirus, and Hudson hasn’t been able to see them for three months.
“The worst part about all of this is that I don’t think anyone cares,” she says. “It seems like we’re all alone.”
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