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With COVID-19 Still Spreading Behind Bars, Dallas County Jails in the Hot Seat

Even as vaccines become more available, the pace at which they're being administered in Dallas County's jails isn't speeding up.
Even as vaccines become more available, the pace at which they're being administered in Dallas County's jails isn't speeding up.
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When it became clear help wasn’t coming, Kiara Yarbrough cradled her sobbing bunkmate in her arms. It was June 2020, and while the triple-digit heat boiled Texas, women inside Dallas County Jail were fighting COVID-19.

Yarbrough and her bunkmate Lauren (not her real name) had been incarcerated in the jail for a few weeks, and both women were sick with the coronavirus. Despite their repeated pleas for help, all they received was some Tylenol and Mucinex, according to Yarbough.

“While I’m holding her, she starts asking God to take care of her mother,” Yarbough said. “All I can think is, ‘Does anyone care?’”

Lauren ultimately recovered from her illness. Yarbrough, whose story was chronicled by this paper in July 2020, died earlier this year. Her loved ones suspect COVID-19 complications played a role in her death.

“I just want people to know how bad it can get in there,” she told the Observer last summer. “I want people to know about my girls.”

According to a new deposition with the sheriff and interviews with incarcerated people, attorneys and detention officers, not much has changed since the height of the pandemic last summer. A lack of communication, an overtly hostile work environment and a mostly passive administration continue to complicate life for people incarcerated in the jail and those hired to guard them.

“It’s huge chaos because there’s no clear plan and no communication for stuff like vaccines,” says one detention officer who, like his colleagues, insisted on anonymity for fear of retaliation. “I’m not supposed to be talking to you or to anyone, really. They don’t want us to go to HR. They don’t want us to send emails. They want us to keep it all in-house.”

Kiara Yarbrough was one of the plaintiffs in Sanchez et al v. Dallas County Sheriff. The case over coronavirus conditions began more than a year ago, but Sheriff Marian Brown was not deposed until March 31. The deposition, which attorneys for Brown and the county tried to quash, provided a rare look at the decisions that shape life for the jail’s thousands of inmates and staff.

Specifically, Brown revealed her reluctance to ramp up the accessibility of vaccines for a facility where social distancing is impossible. Some Johnson & Johnson vaccines were available to people jailed there, but the sheriff says she has not sought to increase the “pace” at which they are delivered. Furthermore, Brown said she has not asked for additional help securing vaccines for her inmates.

“Is it a concern to you that the pace of vaccinating detainees after three-plus weeks has resulted in no more than 500 of the detainees being vaccinated so far?” an attorney for the plaintiffs asked Brown. “Does that concern you?”

“No,” the sheriff replied, “it does not.”

Citing the work being done by Parkland and her subordinates, Brown argued that the requisite vaccine effort was already in motion. However, several detention officers interviewed for this story say they are not aware of any official vaccine plan, nor do they believe the sheriff’s office or the county are doing what they can to take care of inmates or employees.

“I’ve had friends who have left because they couldn’t get time off or workers’ comp to deal with COVID,” says one officer. “These are other officers who actually tested positive. If you think about it, there’s incentive not to report that you have COVID, because you’re not gonna get paid. That means you’re gonna show up for work and get someone sick.”

In an interview, another officer says they are aware of at least five guards who have had their workers’ compensation claims denied despite testing positive for the coronavirus. Some used vacation time so they could still get a paycheck, while others were left to struggle with the virus at home, all the while knowing that they weren’t getting paid for missing work while sick. While no official reason was given for the denial, one officer believes it’s because the jail employees cannot prove they contracted the virus while at work.

“I’m fairly confident they got it at the jail,” says the officer, who is a veteran staffer. “We had quarantine tanks where admin couldn’t make up their mind how to do face-to-face rounds, so people still had to go inside the tank to do rounds. Plus, we don’t get info from medical in a timely manner saying, ‘This tank is on quarantine,’ so [the guards] go into the tank without knowing it’s quarantined. That’s happened a few times.”

Neither Brown’s office nor Dallas County’s human resources department responded to questions for this story, but in total, four current or former jail employees said they themselves or their colleagues were denied workers’ compensation claims. Those denials are part of a broader culture of hostility at the jail, where officers say threats about talking to journalists or even the county’s HR reps have increased during the Sanchez litigation.

“There’s a culture of fear,” says the first officer. “In general, the jail is a very reactive place. When the story came out about women not getting clean clothes, all of a sudden admin is on top of it, making sure inmates have clean linens. But after a while, things start to relax again, and no permanent change is made.”

That same officer raised questions about Husch Blackwell, the law firm working for the county in the Sanchez case. The firm’s partners have been billing upwards of $500 per hour for a case that has now lasted over a year. A public records request revealed that, by August 2020, the county had spent nearly $900,000 on the law firm’s services in 2020 alone.

“That’s money that could’ve been spent on staffing or inmate care,” the officer says.

The communication problems plaguing employees are by no means confined to the jail. Throughout her deposition, Sheriff Brown was asked to recount conversations she has had about COVID-19 with Parkland and local health officials. The sheriff described regular phone calls with local health personnel that sometimes included anywhere from 50 to 100 people. She also cited regular communications with doctors from Parkland.

However, when presented with an email from Dr. Ank Nijhawan, the deposition took a troubling turn.

Nijhawan is an infectious diseases doctor with UT Southwestern. In early summer 2020, around the same time Lauren and Yarbrough thought they were dying, Nijhawan tested 28 detainees in a single jail tank, 21 of whom tested positive. The doctor later emailed those results to a deputy who directly reports to Brown, but the sheriff says she did not see that email until 2021.

“Well, did you take any action as a result of learning that information?” asked an attorney for the plaintiffs.

“No, sir,” Brown said, “I did not.”

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