Coronavirus

Amid Deaths and Inspections, Records Show Crisis-Level Staffing Shortages in Dallas County Jail

Dallas County Jail failed a state inspection last year for the first time in a decade. As state officials returned this week for this year's annual inspection, new records point to a severe staffing shortage, amongst other issues.
Dallas County Jail failed a state inspection last year for the first time in a decade. As state officials returned this week for this year's annual inspection, new records point to a severe staffing shortage, amongst other issues. Pixabay
This wasn’t Deron Tolbert’s first trip to Dallas County Jail. The 31-year-old was arrested last May on a charge of indecent exposure. At the time, he had already struggled with a severe mental illness called schizoaffective disorder for years and was living with his mother in Dallas.

Jailers figured out that Tolbert had a mental illness during a preliminary screening conducted during booking, according to internal documents. The same jailers determined that he was at risk of attempting suicide while locked up.

Two different officers signed off on a recommendation that Tolbert be housed in the jail’s west tower, which is generally reserved for people with mental health issues, and a superior officer approved Tolbert’s assignment to a section reserved for inmates on suicide watch.

Jailers are required to monitor detainees on suicide watch 24/7. State standards require that they conduct more frequent rounds through these sections of the jail.

But Tolbert died, and according to the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office’s own report on the incident, jailers didn’t respond to any signs of distress from Tolbert until inmates in his section alerted them.

When staff showed up at Tolbert’s cell at 4:33 a.m., the report says, they “found inmate Tolbert on the ground, breathing heavily, moaning,” and adds that he “appeared to be holding his chest while rolling on the floor.”

Some 17 minutes after finding Tolbert on the floor of his cell, jail staff requested an ambulance and began CPR. According to the report from the sheriff’s office, it took another 13 minutes for an ambulance to arrive at the jail to take Tolbert to Parkland Memorial Hospital. He was pronounced dead at Parkland by 6 a.m.

Multiple jailers said that events surrounding Tolbert’s death are a result of a crisis-level staffing shortage inside the jail. The shortage has persisted throughout the pandemic as officers are knocked out by the virus, and it grew worse in recent months as the omicron variant spread rapidly among jail staff and inmates alike.

Without the state-mandated number of jailers working each shift, jailers say they just don’t have enough people to fulfill their duties in the mental health units of the jail; they aren’t able to maintain the constant monitoring that suicide watch detainees require, nor are they equipped to complete their rounds according to state-ordered standards.

Recordings of internal county meetings on jail conditions and maintenance appear to confirm their assertions: as of Jan. 31, there were 129 jailer positions sitting vacant according to meeting records and data.

This figure doesn’t account for vacancies in the jail’s medical units: Records show that the jail’s nursing unit alone is operating at only 83% of its required capacity as of Jan. 31. (It’s unclear exactly how many nurses the county is supposed to keep on staff at a given time to maintain 100% capacity.)

The sheriff’s office has long had plans to install a video software system designed to document if jailers were complying with the state’s required monitoring schedules. But according to meeting records, the system still isn’t in place.

Officials from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards rolled into town Monday to conduct their annual inspection of conditions inside the jail. Dallas County Jail failed to meet the state’s minimum standards for jail conditions on multiple fronts during last year’s inspection, the county’s first failed inspection in 10 years.

Among other concerns, state officials noted during their February 2021 inspection that inmates were consistently denied contact with their lawyers, and that the jail failed to provide inmates with regular access to exercise and showers.

Internal records show that at least one tower reported significant problems with accessing water in the shower by the end of last month.

The Dallas County Sheriff’s Office didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

In August 2021, a Dallas County jailer named Damon Finney died from complications caused by COVID-19. In recent months, people held in the county jail have sounded the alarm on decrepit and unsanitary living conditions and a lack of protective gear against the virus. 
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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