A lawsuit against the Dallas County jail alleging inadequate COVID-19 protocols was dismissed in federal courts on Thursday, but former inmates, jail reform activists and civil rights organizations say the fight isn’t over.
After almost two and a half years, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Lynn, who was newly appointed to the case, ruled the class-action to be moot.
Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown released a statement saying she was pleased with the dismissal.
“We are pleased at the Court’s decision, and it affirms the hard work of the employees who manage our detention system,” the press release said. “It also clears the way for the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office to continue to focus on providing quality care to the individuals charged to our care.”
The American Civil Liberties Union and other parties voluntarily opted to dismiss the case, withdrawing claims by six former inmates. Alison Grinter Allen, a criminal defense attorney on the case, said the team wanted to find inmates currently in the jail and could decide to refocus the lawsuit on overall health safety in the jail, rather than just COVID-19 response.
“It’s basically a technicality based on the fact that it has dragged out so long,” she told The Dallas Morning News. “A lot has changed since the early days of the pandemic, public health in the jail has new threats and many old threats. There’s monkeypox, but there’s also severe overcrowding, understaffing.”
In court documents, former inmates described the early days of the pandemic, saying there was a lack of access to soap and cleaning supplies because officers would be too scared to show up to work, shortages of food and blankets, and lack of information.
Grinter Allen said only people who were sick were being tested, and then when a positive case was found, an entire pod of around 60 inmates would be quarantined. She alleged that inmates working in laundry and food areas were often sick.
“It was impossible to keep them healthy and to keep them working,” she said. “That was one of the major problems that led to nobody getting laundry, and interruptions in food service.”
Brown told The News in July that staff test inmates, isolate those who have tested positive, and interview those who might have been in contact with that inmate.
“When COVID came, this was novel. None of us knew what to do. Of course, we’re the security people. We’re not medical people,” she said. “So what we did was we took common sense efforts and put them into place back then to try to keep everyone safe….
“And so while there is a challenge, because we have a population situated in one place, I think the fact that we have been doing this for a couple of years and a half now says that we do indeed care about the people who are charged to our care,” she said. “It’s not like we’re being irresponsible and not concerned about their safety.”
Brown did not respond to requests for further comment on Friday.
The lawsuit filed in April 2020 on behalf of nine inmates initially sought the release of all inmates older than 50, as well as those with underlying health conditions that may make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Emmanuel Lewis, a former correctional officer and witness in the case, said the sheriff’s office’s statement on the dismissal is one of many ways Brown has been misleading the public. He believes that the COVID-19 positive case rates, and staff turnover rates reported at the jail are misleading.
“Independent monitors are needed,” he said.
Grinter Allen is frustrated that the defense has to essentially start over, but feels confident in its ability to do so.
“Certainly the county has shown that they’re willing to spend a whole lot of time and money trying to frustrate the aims of the suit, where they could have just negotiated and made use of this money to protect people’s health and safety in the jail,” Grinter Allen said.
The county jail has been at the center of Dallas County tension between the felony district court judges and commissioners. The jail population is on the brink of capacity with more than 6,100 inmates reported on Friday.