Dallas County Jail detention officers protested Tuesday against staff shortages and mandated overtime. They said the situation makes the threat of COVID-19 greater for employees and the public.
“We just want to let everybody know we're doing our jobs, but we're not robots. We can't continue to work three or four days of overtime,” Detention Officer Lessia Gray said. She said she is a 19-year Dallas County Sheriff’s Department employee.
Some demonstrators hid their faces and declined to share names for fear of retaliation from supervisors.
Detention Officer Emmanuel Lewis said the department forbids employees from talking to the media without approval of superiors, but the speakers decided to go public anyway about repeated requirements to work 16 hour days.
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“I've gone through the chain of command. I've spoken to all those people. I've filed lawsuits. Now it's time to get in the streets,” Lewis said.
Former jail inmate Carl Daniels joined the protest on behalf of detention officers to say the situation is bad for inmates, too.
“Back-to-back double shifts is not good for anybody. You get fatigued. You get tired. You get cranky,” Daniels said.
The Dallas County Jail had 5,976 inmates as of Monday evening’s count. Jail population is no longer reduced for social distancing as it was at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Delays in accepting inmates at state hospitals and state prisons due to COVID-19 have played a role in keeping the jail population high, according to Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who watches the jail for Commissioners Court.
At the same time, Price said up to 300 of the authorized staff of 1,450 jail detention officers have been out on leave lately, some of them due to COVID-19 quarantine. It is slightly more than the 170 to 200 officers that Price said were typically on leave before the pandemic.
“I’m not going to lay it all on COVID,” Price said. “Granted, it has been amplified because of COVID.”
Price said state regulations require a staffing ratio of one detention officer for every 48 inmates and if staff falls short versus the population, the ratio must still be maintained.
“We have to be in compliance and sometimes that means you have to be mandated if we don't get enough volunteers,” Price said.
The protestors said staffing at the jail has been a challenge for years, but the current situation poses a greater threat to the community in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID is a big factor. I caught COVID, me and my husband. I brought it home. The inmates aren't being made to wear masks, but we are,” Detention Officer Markedra Benson said. She has been with the Sheriff’s Department for 14 years.
The protestors said two Dallas County detention officers died of COVID-19 in August, but the Sheriff’s Department said only one was confirmed to be COVID-19.
Sheriff Marian Brown issued a statement by email.
“Managing the county jail requires adherence to state regulatory staffing numbers. Currently, because we have vacancies, we must utilize overtime to remain in compliance. We continue to work to get to a point where overtime is not a necessity,” the statement said.
The demonstrators said hiring and retention of detention officers is more difficult under the current situation.
“No one wants to work in these conditions. We all like to go home and be with our families,” Benson said.
The sheriff’s e-mail said the department does not keep records on what percentage of employees and inmates have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The email said all three Pfizer vaccines have been offered to inmates. It said one inmate is known to have died from COVID-19.