Civil rights groups file lawsuit to stop spread of COVID-19 in Dallas jails

COVID in Jail
COVID in Jail

 

Special to The Dallas Examiner

 

As Dallas jails continue to be an epicenter for the spread of novel coronavirus causing COVID-19, a class-action lawsuit was filed today against Sheriff Marian Brown as the supervisor of the Dallas County Jail. The suit, Daniels v. Brown, asked that the Dallas County Jail begin following social distancing guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for those residing there. Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, the Civil Rights Corps, the Next Generation Action Network Legal Advocacy Fund and Susman Godfrey LLP filed the suit.

“We are risking thousands of lives by not implementing basic health protocols inside the Dallas County Jail,” said Adriana Piñon, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “For the sake of our community – both in and out of jail – social distancing in jails cannot wait.”

The lawsuit stated that Brown has obligations under the Texas Constitution and common law to maintain the jail in a clean and sanitary manner and to take immediate action to abate a public health nuisance. As of May 19, a total of 333 individuals tested positive at the Dallas County Jail. However, with reports of a current lack of testing and with 5,600 individuals sharing pods without the ability to safely distance, the groups have been concerned that number of positive cases could be much higher.

“The Texas Constitution requires the sheriff to protect people in the Dallas County jail from COVID-19,” said Elizabeth Rossi, senior attorney at Civil Rights Corps. “Yet she has not done the one thing that all medical experts and the CDC agree is the cornerstone of preventing the spread of the virus – social distancing.

“Nearly 1,800 medically vulnerable incarcerated people like our plaintiffs are being kept in close quarters, eating, sleeping and spending recreation time within close proximity to each other. They cannot protect themselves, and the Sheriff has refused to do it. This lawsuit is a means to require the sheriff to take the basic, minimal step of ensuring that medically vulnerable people in the jail can keep six feet apart from each other. They should not be held in crowded cages ever – let alone in the midst of a global pandemic.”

The complaint highlights, in addition to concerns regarding the general, incarcerated population, that subjecting people who are detained pretrial to unreasonable risk violates their right to due course of the law under the Texas Constitution.

“Our jails are concentrated with people who already carry the scars of poverty and the inequities of our health care system,” said Minister Dominique Alexander, founder and president of NGAN. “This epidemic will spread faster and hit harder in our jails, and we must take action now to prevent needless deaths.”

The facility had its first confirmed positive case of COVID-19 in late March. While awaiting test results, that person was interacting with at least the 64 others housed between two pods of the jail. As people detained share a day room, toilets, showers, tables, payphones, an electronic kiosk for video conferences and sending and receiving messages, and other common facilities, this person may have exposed a large number of people to the disease. Those exposed included other people detained in the jail, along with security officers, nurses, food servers and visiting lawyers and family members, according to the petition.

“The current risk of contracting COVID-19 in jail has created a circumstance in which poverty and the inability to afford money bail can lead to a death sentence for someone who hasn’t even been convicted of a crime,” said Kim Cole, an attorney with NGAN Legal Advocacy Fund. “Continuing to detain individuals in facilities containing a deadly virus is a complete violation of human and civil rights, which, in and of itself should be a crime.”

The complaint was filed with the 14th District Court of Dallas County.

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