DALLAS – Nine individuals in the Dallas County Jail have filed a federal class-action lawsuit today against Dallas County and Sheriff Marian Brown asking for the immediate release of anyone over 50 and those who are most vulnerable to contracting the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU, the ACLU of Texas, The Next Generation Action Network Legal Advocacy Fund, Civil Rights Corps, and Susman Godfrey L.L.F. The class-action filing comes as more than 30 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 in the jail.
The legal team is asking the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas to immediately remove medically-vulnerable people from harm's way, and to ensure that the jail is required to adopt sufficient public health protocols, such as regular testing, physical distancing, free access to soap and masks, and sufficient sanitation supplies for anyone inside the jail.
“The pandemic will not stop at the jail door,” stated ACLU senior counsel Henderson Hill. “People will die if we don’t enforce CDC directives to protect those in our community who are detained or employed at the jail. De-populate now!”
People in the Dallas County Jail have described fears about being in close quarters with sick individuals, as they have no means to protect themselves from the COVID-19 virus inside. Plaintiffs to the case also described lack of access to soap and cleaning supplies because officers running commissary would be too scared to show up to work, shortages of food and blankets, and lack of information as to when they would get basic supplies such as toilet paper, because those who passed them out were on lockdown for what they feared was the beginnings of a novel coronavirus outbreak.
Several plaintiffs also described lack of access to a doctor, while they suffer from pre-existing health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, high-blood pressure, or respiratory issues that put them at higher risk of severe illness. One person in the jail with a severe chronic asthma said that upon asking for a COVID-19 test, he was told by a member of the jail staff who had to relay the fact that he would first be charged for a sick call, “I don’t know what these people want you to do. Die first?”
“People’s lives are at stake here, and we’re asking the court to take immediate action,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. “Everyone is on high alert during the COVID-19 pandemic and trying to do the right thing; we’re making sure that our vulnerable loved ones in jail don’t get left behind and have a way out.”
The complaint highlights that outbreaks in detention facilities around the country, many with more resources than the Dallas County Jail, prove the need for immediate and significant reductions in population to control the exponential spread of the disease to those in the criminal legal system and the communities that interact with those in the system.
“The threat COVID-19 poses to people incarcerated and working in the Dallas County Jail is severe,” stated Andrea Woods, staff attorney at the ACLU Criminal Law Project. “Failure to act now will yield exponentially more infections, hospitalizations, and deaths in both the jail and the larger Dallas community. Public health experts agree that, in light of these unprecedented circumstances, officials must immediately release the most vulnerable persons from jail. Relief must be expanded and accelerated in the Dallas County Jail to avoid the worst-case scenario. The timeline to act is hours and days, not weeks.”
“Jail health is and always will be an issue of public health,” stated Alison Grinter of the NGAN Legal Advocacy Fund. “In this time of pandemic more than ever, we need to understand the ways in which our jails and correctional facilities incubate disease in populations that can not protect themselves. Our jails are concentrated with men and women who already carry the scars of poverty and the inequities of our healthcare system. This epidemic will spread faster and hit harder in our jails and we must take action now to prevent needless deaths.”
Texas has the 4th highest incarceration rate in the country, and many people are locked up for non-violent offenses like drug possession. Public health experts and groups such as the National Commission on Correctional Health Care have warned that people incarcerate and those who watch over them are at higher risks for contracting COVID-19 as people are not able to follow CDC recommendations.
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas.