Several inmates, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Civil Rights Corps, and Next Generation Action Network (NGAN), are suing Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown for the immediate release of inmates from Dallas County’s Lew Sterrett Justice Center.
A hearing is set in Sanchez et al v. Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown before United States District Court Judge Ada Brown on April 21.
The plaintiffs petitioned for the release of all medically-vulnerable inmates and other inmates who are not medically-vulnerable in order to reduce the population of the jail so that a six-foot social distance can be maintained.
With a jail population of over 5,000, Dallas County Health and Human Services reported 34 confirmed COVID-19 inmate cases this week. No deaths have been reported.
The State of Texas, Governor Greg Abbott, and Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a motion to intervene in the case over concerns that this lawsuit could result in the release of rapists, arsonists, armed robbers, and killers.
One such inmate is Billy Chemirmir, a man accused of murdering twelve women by smothering them. Chemirmir has a bail set at $13.6 million and also has an immigration detention order on file with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order on March 29 prohibiting local officials from releasing dangerous felons from jails.
Their release would additionally burden law enforcement during a public health crisis, the motion filed by state leaders argues.
The plaintiffs assert that they are being kept in dangerous conditions that “threaten their lives” within the confines of the jail. They further claim this violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
They argue that Brown, whose office administers the jail, “[is] not taking reasonable, appropriate measures consistent with public health guidelines to halt the further spread of this deadly and highly contagious virus.”
In her response to the suit, Brown claims that she has taken reasonable, affirmative action to protect inmates, including following CDC guidelines. Because the jail population is well under its capacity of 7,414, social distancing has been more feasible.
Other measures taken to protect the jail population include the use of masks by jail staff and the provision of masks to inmates. Inmates are educated about the importance of social distancing and handwashing and are provided adequate cleaning supplies for cleaning their cells. Any area where a coronavirus-positive inmate was housed is sanitized by a third-party vendor.
Additionally, new intake screening procedures have been implemented including temperature screening, and incoming inmates are confined separately if they are either confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19.
The sheriff has reduced the jail population by about 1,000 people since March 17. She has done so by two methods: encouraging local law enforcement agencies to use “their best judgment” about whether persons should be released or jailed and working with the judiciary to determine if medically-vulnerable inmates should be released.
Brown acknowledges that under Texas law only judicial officers may order the release of an inmate, but she has helped facilitate the process with the assistance of Parkland Hospital.
Parkland provides Brown with a list of which inmates are medically-vulnerable according to CDC guidelines. That list is provided to the courts, who then review the cases and bonds to determine the inmate’s eligibility for a bond reduction or personal bond upon which the inmate can be released.
Neighboring Tarrant County has only recently seen their first positive coronavirus cases among jail inmates, having utilized strict protocols for more than a month.
Both Sheriff Brown and the State of Texas have filed motions to dismiss the case.
In its motion to dismiss, the State’s attorneys argue that the federal court can not grant the prisoners’ motion for release because the inmates have not exhausted other avenues available to them. They must follow the procedure under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) or through the Dallas County jail grievance system first.
In a similar case in Harris County, yesterday Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal declined to order the release of as many as 4,000 inmates.
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Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.