Tarrant County jails take cautionary measures amid COVID-19

The Tarrant County Corrections Center is seen May 7 in Fort Worth. In response to the pandemic, book-in procedures have changed at the counties five jails. 

Criminal defense attorney Lisa Haines has been attempting for nearly a month to get one of her clients an inhaler.

Her client, a 23-year-old who is incarcerated at Tarrant County’s Green Bay Jail, has asthma and a heart murmur — health conditions that he’s had since he was a kid.

Haines said according to a nurse at the facility as long as an inmate is not abusing the inhaler, they are allowed to have it in their possession.

In response to COVID-19, each Tarrant County jail has its own set of protocols depending on what works for them, said Lt. Jennifer Gabbert with the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office, in an email. However, the facilities usually follow guidelines from the local health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the Green Bay Jail Facility there are usually 30 bunks in one cell, Haines said. Another inmate, whose bunk is right next to her client’s, tested positive for COVID-19.

Her client is in quarantine and has not shown any symptoms but reported having body aches and no high temperature, she said. However, as of Tuesday, he still has no inhaler.

“I have concerns that he could get very sick and really be impacted,” Haines said. “Anyone could die from COVID-19, but he has what they call an underlying condition — he has two of them.”

Tarrant County has five jail facilities, but only three are currently housing inmates, Gabbert said. Total housing capacity is over 5,000, and as of Thursday, there are 3,410 people incarcerated.

As of Sunday, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which is the regulatory agency for all county and privately operated municipal jails, reported 65 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among inmates in Tarrant County jails. No inmates are currently pending results. However, 149 are in quarantine.

Four out of the 65 confirmed cases are being treated offsite, and there are 31 jailers with active confirmation of the virus. Twenty jailers are either in quarantine or pending test results, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

In response to the pandemic, book-in procedures have changed, Gabbert said. No person can enter the jail without being medically screened, and everyone, including officers, wears a mask.

Additionally, new arrestees are kept separated from the general population for several days to ensure they do not develop symptoms of COVID-19, she said.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported an outbreak of 423 additional cases of COVID-19 at the Federal Medical Center Fort Worth on Sunday, according to data retrieved from the Tarrant County website.

In total, there are 619 confirmed cases of the virus at the center — all inmates. One staff member has the virus.

Federal prisons operate under the jurisdiction of the federal government as opposed to a state body. A person who violates federal law could be sentenced to federal prison.

An additional inmate’s death was reported at the facility Sunday as well, according to a press release from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The facility houses 1,463 male offenders.

“The safety and the well-being of our team members and the inmates we are housing remain a top priority, and we must all work together to get through this,” Gabbert said.

Criminal defense attorney Benson Varghese said although a small percentage of his clients are incarcerated, it is still a stressful time for everyone, and proximity in jails is unavoidable.

“As one client put it, you can only control yourself – you can’t force anyone else to take the precautions you are taking,” Varghese said in an email.

Tarrant County’s elected offices are working hard to assist county jails during the outbreak, he said. Varghese has seen inmates being provided masks, optional video pleas and the reset of court settings that wouldn’t result in a resolution.

Haines has also noticed some efforts from jailers when she visits her clients. Staff members make sure to wipe down anything an inmate could have touched in visitation rooms — both before bringing someone in and after.

They are even wiping down pens after a client uses one, but it’s still a frightening situation for people who are incarcerated, she said.

Another one of Haines’ clients, who is homeless and does not have funds to bail out, is in quarantine with six other inmates.

They have three sets of bunk beds that are about five feet away from each other, her client told her. They stay in their cell all day long, and if one of them had the virus, they would all be infected, she said.

“I'm worried sick about these people that are in custody,” Haines said. “It breaks my heart. I wake up thinking about it; I go to bed thinking about it.”

@daisygarciac

news-editor.shorthorn@uta.edu

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