Dallas Jail Officer Testifies on Lack of Covid-19 Precautions

The Dallas County Jail. (Andreas Praefcke via Wikipedia)

DALLAS (CN) — In front of a federal judge who will decide whether to release inmates 50 years and older or who are medically vulnerable to Covid-19, a Dallas County Jail detention officer testified Tuesday he was discouraged by supervisors from wearing a mask in front of inmates and claimed he was not informed his area was quarantined.

Emmanuel Lewis described how up to 64 inmates in a cluster — or pod — of cells typically share one bar of soap at one sink, while officers are provided with liquid soap. Dressed in his jail uniform, Lewis testified remotely during the nine-hour long hearing that was forced online due to the ongoing pandemic.

Lewis said he was told not to wear a mask in front of inmates out of fear it would scare them. He described how it is “impossible” to socially distance the recommended six feet away from other inmates in the cramped spaces. He estimated that inmate bunks were separated by four feet from each other.

“The seats and payphones are not wiped down with disinfectant,” he said. “It has been that way since I was hired.”

Lewis alleged that when he last worked on April 18, neither he nor his supervisors were informed his assigned pod was under quarantine until after he performed his walk-through. He said he only noticed the quarantine on a piece of paper afterwards.

Lewis alleged an unidentified infected inmate was forced to wait three hours in a visitation booth in the pod for transport to the infirmary. The inmate had been in his cell between 5–7 days previously. Lewis said a nurse later “flipped out” upon learning the inmate was exposed.

“He’s going to have to use the bathroom or eat,” Lewis testified. “He ended up going to a time-out cell to use the bathroom.”

Lewis testified that over 50 inmates in the same pod as the infected inmate work in the kitchen to feed the jail. He said a cleaning crew entered the pod afterwards “for two minutes” to spray a cleaner before leaving.

“It wasn’t clean,” he said.

Lewis was called to testify by lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union who are representing nine current and past jail inmates. Filed on April 9, the federal class action demands the release of older and vulnerable inmates to stop a coronavirus outbreak in the jail that has infected 89 inmates and eight employees, so far.

Lewis admitted that he was worried he would be retaliated against for complying with the subpoena and that he has only been on the job for seven months.

“As a newly hired officer, you are on probation and they will find any way to get rid of you,” he said.

U.S. District Judge Ada Brown — an appointee of President Donald Trump — told Lewis to inform her if he is fired or retaliated against after testifying.

The judge noted that it seems all of the cleaning in the jail is performed by the inmates themselves, based on testimony in the morning from several inmates. Lewis said he would provide bleach and disinfectants to inmates when requested only when they were available to him.

Lewis describes a workforce that is constantly shorthanded and overworked, claiming over 15 officers on his shift are regularly mandated to work overtime after completing their regular shift.

“Moral was low before Covid and even lower after due to lower staff, tremendous workload and a stop of family visitations,” he said. “People fear not knowing, the inconsistency of management, saying one thing and doing another. They are afraid they will bring it home to their families.”

Lewis testified not seeing any Covid-19 information being posted in areas where inmates congregate and that televisions were not regularly tuned to an inmate channel where such information is displayed. He said he had seen four sheets of paper posted “on the side of a desk” in small print with information that is “in an area that is not highly visible.”

Lewis said there was a noticeable change in his supervisor’s attitude after the ACLU’s lawsuit was filed, that it was “all of a sudden a scurry of activity.”

He said guards and inmates can now request a disposable mask but claimed it is a “whole process” to request a replacement through supervisors and that he can only ask during his 30-minute lunch break. He said inmates were provided masks and a “flimsy, plastic” set of gloves after the lawsuit was filed.

Lewis said guards are now provided a large bottle of hand sanitizer but that inmates were not informed.

“A lot of inmates don’t even know, I walked around and let them know ‘Hey, I can spray your hands,’” Lewis said.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Barry Barnett, a partner with Susman Godfrey, emphasized the alleged deficiencies in the Covid-19 training Lewis received.

“How do you know what to do during a pandemic, one of the worst in the country?” Barnett asked.

“I do not,” Lewis replied. “I do my best with my own research.”

Defense attorneys on cross-examinations pointed out that Lewis has not worked outside of the jail’s south tower in the past two months and that he does not know what is happening elsewhere in the facility. They also cast doubt on just how difficult the process is for Lewis to request disinfectant cleaners for inmates. 

Lewis admitted that he can call the sanitation department on a speaker that he has with him at all times but that he was not trained to do that and denied having ever done that during his employment.

Defense witnesses will testify Wednesday, with Brown expected to make a ruling on a temporary restraining order soon after.

The ACLU filed a similar lawsuit against state Republican officials on April 8 in Travis County District Court, seeking to block an executive order by Governor Greg Abbott banning judges from granting personal bonds to anyone accused of a violent crime or who has such a conviction on their records. Abbott ordered the ban after Harris County allowed some inmates charged with nonviolent crimes to be released during the pandemic. The trial judge in that case decided to block Abbott’s order on April 11.

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