Criminal Justice

Lawsuits and protests: Texas county jails are on the brink during the pandemic

After 18 months of a pandemic, high jail populations, infections and deserting staff, county jailers say the pandemic is brining longtime structural issues at county detention to light.

Outside the Frank Crowley Courts Building in Dallas, a half dozen people in masks hold up signs reading "Where is our hazard pay?" and "Stop mandatory overtime!"

"It's hard for us in here," said Markedra Benson, referring to her job of 14 years as a guard at the Dallas County Jail.

Of the handful of protestors, she is one of even fewer who will say her name and show her face. The others pull up their masks and at times shield their faces from local TV cameras with their signs. They said they are also guards at the county jail but added that they feared retribution over their demands to improve working conditions and reduce overtime.

"We are being mandated (overtime). We are tired. We don’t have enough co-workers here. Our coworkers keep keep catching COVID," Benson said on a video of the early October protest recorded by the website Smash Da Topic.

"We don’t want to walk out. We just want to get the attention of the chiefs commissioner’s court, whoever — even other counties — that can help us out," she added.

smashdatopic.PNG

For 18 months, COVID-19 has turned Texas county jails into petri dishes of disease, and many of these facilities that have struggled for years are now near the breaking point.

Tens of millions of dollars have been spent on overtime for jails across the state as counties struggle to hire new employees and people leave the profession.

Jails across the state are all struggling to keep their staffs and struggling with high inmate populations and with coronavirus infections. Shorthanded jails in Dallas, Bexar, Harris and elsewhere have pulled patrol units off the streets to work in the jails.

"There was always the mandatory overtime," said Emmanuel Lewis, another guard, in an interview with TPR. "We were okay with the two days a week of overtime. But once it started to get excessive — three, four or five days a week plus your regular shifts? It’s way too much."

Lewis sued Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown over the working conditions in its jail. The state constitution appoints sheriffs the "keeper of the county jail." The lawsuit in state court was dismissed. The detention officer said the sheriff and commissioners weren't hearing guards' voices over how bad it has become.

"At the beginning (of the pandemic), we weren’t even allowed to wear masks, and the staffing issues … we were in up to 64 inmates in a tank where the ratio is supposed to be one to 48," he said.

Two guards died in August, at least one from COVID.

The Dallas County Sheriff's Office didn't respond to TPR's requests for comment. The jail fell briefly out of compliance earlier this year for not allowing inmates on suicide watch to shower. It said that indigent inmates were not being given hygiene products like soap.

The jail is currently facing a federal lawsuit from inmates over health and safety. Last week, the FBI launched an investigation into a clerk who allegedly stole $700,000 from inmate commissary accounts.

According to the guards TPR interviewed across the three largest counties, the pandemic didn't create these systemic problems — it just made the cracks in the foundations of large urban county jails visible.

"This is a decades long problem," said Robin Foster, a lawyer representing the Harris County Deputies Association in its lawsuit against the county judge, commissioners and sheriff over working conditions at its jail.

federal harris complaint.PNG

The lawsuit includes 200 pages of personal accounts from jailers talking about how every day their lives are in danger, and the accounts are shocking at times.

"We have detention officers who work 12-hour shifts, and they can't get a break at all to go to the restroom, so they are using the restroom in plastic bags underneath their desk," she said.

Foster explained that they need 500 detention officers to be hired right now to keep up with the droves who are leaving the profession over concerns for their safety or for higher paying jobs. The lawsuit said there were 918 assaults on staff this year and more than 6,000 between inmates.

The union thinks it has been patient, but things have only gotten worse as they have waited for more help.

"It’s always been ‘Oh, we just had, you know, the recession.' And then ‘We just had Harvey' and now ‘We just have COVID.' And it’s just been trending down and down and down as far as working conditions," Foster said.

On Oct. 1, the Harris County jail was 87% full. An expert who spoke with TPR spoke on an earlier story said anything above 80% became exceedingly hard to manage due to the need of separating inmates. Violent offenders are not to be kept with non-violent ones. Mentally ill offenders also require more attention, and Harris County is the largest mental health facility in the state.

The union has asked the federal government to take over the jail administration.

"The strain placed by the ongoing pandemic on Harris County Criminal justice system, as well as our public health system and other local government functions has been unyielding and unprecedented," said Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez in a written statement.

He added that he was grateful for his staff enduring the "toughest circumstances" the county has ever experienced.

Even though guards say many of the issues predate the pandemic, for some county judges, blame belongs with the governor.

"Well, they’re doing just about everything they can to cause significant problems with local jails, particularly in urban areas," said Nelson Wolff, the Bexar County judge.

Wolff said the Bexar County Jail is suffering because the governor and the legislature have made it harder to release people without a cash bail, which many people who have not been tried cannot afford.

Nearly half of the 4,500 people in Bexar County Jail are pre-trial. This issue was compounded by the criminal jury trials in the county being discontinued over COVID fears through most of the pandemic.

Wolff has complained for months about the pace of authorities picking up people in jails waiting to start their prison terms at state facilities. Wolff said the governor only made it worse when he started jailing immigrants for largely unprosecutable crimes in Texas state prisons, taking up space that should have gone to those waiting in jail.

Bexar County Adult Detention was 88 percent full on Oct. 1, at a time when the jail is trying to fill more than 300 positions.

"It’s very taxing. Mistakes are being made — hard to get enough jail guards. Capacity is reaching its limits,” he said.

TPR recently published a story showing that the Bexar County Jail had left a man incarcerated five months after he was ordered by the courts to be released. The revelation was followed by the Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar hiring the consulting firm Detain Inc. to look at improving processes at the jail. This was not appreciated by some county commissioners, who had already been planning on hiring one outside of the sheriff's office.

TrishDeBerry_Screenshot.png

"Sheriff, the idea was for this to be a completely independent study, independent of you," said Trish Deberry, a Bexar County commissioner, in a fiery rebuke at court last week. "Because I’ll tell you — moving into this at this point, you’re compromised. There’s a credibility issue associated with you handpicking your consultant."

Ultimately, commissioners decided to hire their own consulting group in addition to the sheriff's.

Salazar said he made the choice to preempt commissioners because he saw Deberry's push for auditors as a push for jail privatization.

Salazar, who was chastised again for returning to court with his hand out for more overtime money for his jailers, pointed to other counties, saying many of the issues like overtime are being faced by counties across the state, not just in Bexar.

He may be right. That fact, however, may be more alarming than comforting.

This story originally appeared on Texas Public Radio. TPR was founded by and is supported by the community. If you value its commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

Subscribe to Today in Houston

Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.

* required

Share