Judge Won’t Release Medically Vulnerable Dallas Jail Inmates

The Dallas County Jail. (Andreas Praefcke via Wikipedia)

DALLAS (CN) — A federal judge Monday denied the American Civil Liberties Union’s request to release inmates over 50 years of age or who are medically vulnerable from the Dallas County Jail, where several inmates and employees have tested positive for Covid-19.

U.S. District Judge Ada Brown — an appointee of President Donald Trump — declined the motion for a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and writ of habeas corpus. In a one-page order, Brown stated she would explain her reasoning “soon.”

The federal class action was filed on behalf of nine inmates on April 9 at the beginning of the outbreak inside the jail. The number of cases has steadily risen as 141 inmates and 21 jailers have tested positive as of Sunday, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Brown heard several days of testimony last week from current and former inmates, jail employees and medical experts. Detention officer Emmanuel Lewis told the judge on April 21 how he was instructed by supervisors to not wear a mask in order to avoid scaring the inmates. He described how during one shift, he was not informed his assigned pod — a cluster of cells — was under quarantine until after he finished a walk-through and he saw it written on a piece of paper.

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 claimed over 50 inmates in the same pod as the infected inmate worked 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.

Lewis testified he did not see 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 for one during his 30-minute lunch break. He said inmates were provided masks and a “flimsy, plastic” set of gloves after the lawsuit was filed.

The ACLU of Texas criticized the ruling, stating the “timeline to act is hours and days, not weeks.”

“The threat COVID-19 poses to people incarcerated and working in the Dallas County Jail is severe,” the organization tweeted.

Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton cheered the ruling, accusing the ACLU of trying “to force an indiscriminate and unlawful release of potentially violent criminals” on the community. His office intervened in the lawsuit in support of the county.”

“I applaud the court for upholding the rule of law by recognizing the need to simultaneously protect the health and safety of Texans during the COVID-19 pandemic, while maintaining the requirements of our criminal justice system,” Paxton said in a written statement.

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 but the Texas Supreme Court stayed that order two days later.

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