Amber Wilhite doesn’t share specifics about the inmate she helped transfer from the Tarrant County Corrections Center to the Dallas VA Medical Center. Just this: He’s a veteran with a traumatic brain injury, and he’s no longer behind bars.
Instead, he’s receiving inpatient treatment through the medical center’s brain injury rehabilitation program. If he follows the terms — shows up to court, checks in with his attorney, stays on top of his medicines — he won’t have to return to jail.
His case is a small victory, one flame of crisis she’s extinguished during her less-than-a-year tenure as Tarrant County’s medical liaison. In the role, she marries medicine and law to advocate for sick inmates. Her direct supervisor, Executive Chief Deputy Charles Eckert, calls her “ambidextrous.”
The sheriff’s office hired Wilhite in August 2021 after a spate of ill news: people dying or committing suicide in jail, a woman giving birth alone in her cell. Her charge, to “figure out what’s going wrong and get it fixed,” is complicated. Lawsuits, an ongoing pandemic and a sicker-than-average group of people who live in close quarters make up only a handful of the challenges in her job.
A nurse with a master’s in forensic nursing and a background in intensive care, Wilhite is kind but doesn’t coddle. Nor does she mince words about what she’s up against.
“There’s still a massive fire,” she said, “but it’s these little fires that I’m able to put out that eventually will start chipping away at the big one.”
Wilhite’s day begins with a long drive. She commutes about an hour each way, and those hours in the car serve as time to herself before and after the emails, medical charts, 911 calls, court appearances and COVID-19 tests descend upon her schedule. (“And then it never fails, that schedule will get changed every hour,” she said.)
Wilhite’s office is in a secure wing on the third floor of the Tarrant County Corrections Center. It neighbors the “release door,” the door inmates walk through to leave the jail, hopefully, for the last time.
If she’s advocated for, say, compassionate release, or early release of an inmate because of circumstances like severe illness, she’ll watch the inmate walk past her office door and think to herself, “Here’s your second chance. Don’t screw it up.”
Wilhite, who’s 40, worked in the hospital setting for a decade before she transitioned to a corrections job in Johnson County in 2020. Her friend and colleague, Kathy Vaughan, had originally applied for the job, but as she went through the interview process, Wilhite kept coming to her mind. She recommended Wilhite for the role instead.
“Whenever there was ‘good nurse/bad nurse,’ I was always the sweet fluffy nurse,” Vaughan said. “She was always the one that was able to be the tough one.”
The two met in 2013 in the medical surgical unit of Glen Rose Medical Center. Vaughan was a charge nurse, and Wilhite earned her respect immediately. She was humble, eager to learn and unwilling to sugarcoat. “She is authentic,” Vaughan said. “She kind of commands the room, because if she’s saying something, you know she means it.”
Wilhite wasn’t looking for a new job when Vaughan pitched her the Johnson County corrections gig, but she had been thinking about a more gritty type of nursing. She’d lost a dear friend not long before, and though her death was deemed a suicide, she wondered if there were more to the story.
Forensic nurses work in all kinds of spaces, including sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, even death investigations. Spurred on by questions, Wilhite was pursuing a master’s in forensic nursing from Aspen University when Vaughan approached her about the job.
Not long after and a county away, Eckert, with the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office, was advocating for the return of the medical liaison position.
He’s worked in law enforcement for 30 years. Early in his career, a colleague regularly spoke with him about ensuring inmates received proper medical care. “There are some inmates that are so sick that there’s nothing you can do. They don’t need to be in jail — and that stuck with me,” he said.
The sheriff’s office has employed medical liaisons in the past. One woman, Deborah McQuary, filed a 2008 lawsuit against her former employer, alleging the office fired her because she reported numerous problems related to inmate medical care. The court dismissed her claims, according to documents about the case.
A more recent medical liaison, Susan Spencer, worked under Eckert. He thinks she left the position in the early 2010s, but can’t remember the exact year. Since then, the jail hasn’t had a medical liaison.
When Eckert was promoted to his current position in December 2020, he spoke with Sheriff Bill Waybourn about bringing back the job, which is paid for not by taxpayers but out of the inmates’ commissary account.
A commissary account is a pre-paid account from which inmates can purchase goods like toiletries, small doses of over-the-counter medicine and snacks. The jail receives a portion of the funds and uses the revenue, in part, to pay Wilhite’s close to $100,000 salary.
“What better way of giving back to the inmates than use the money that they spend to make sure that they have somebody that champions for them?” Eckert said.
The funding source simplified the approval process, and the commissioners court gave the go-ahead. When Wilhite applied, Eckert could tell she was a “rock star.”
“She fits in around law enforcement, she fits in around medical, she can pick up the phone and talk to judges,” he said. “She is just one of the most, you know, as far as her personality and her knowledge, one of the most ambidextrous — from being able to walk from one situation to the next and be able to do her job.”
Wilhite’s first task each day is to check on hospitalized inmates. She contacts John Peter Smith Hospital, which has a unit designated for them. Then, she passes each inmate’s medical status to Tarrant County judges who weigh the inmate’s charges against his health.
For an inmate dying of cancer, for example, Wilhite can advocate he spend his final days in hospice or surrounded by family. “So they’re able to pass away in peace,” she said, “instead of alone in a cell upstairs.”
Wilhite doesn’t treat patients herself — that’s the responsibility of providers from MHMR and JPS Health Network, which operates almost an entire emergency department in the corrections center, she said.
For example, Wilhite receives a weekly report about pregnant inmates: who they are, when they’re due. She reviews each inmate’s chart and communicates with JPS providers, who schedule inductions so inmates don’t go into labor alone.
MHMR sends therapists and social workers to provide regular care for the inmates who struggle with mental or behavioral health. Wilhite keeps track of who’s following their prescriptions and who isn’t.
In her tenure, she’s helped implement a computer system that monitors each inmate’s medication compliance. She also added a physical flagging system in the jail: magnets stuck outside the cell of an inmate who might be struggling. Their presence alerts MHMR employees and medical staff making rounds to the vulnerability of the person inside.
The Report asked Wilhite about the recent case of a disabled woman who left her brief stint in Tarrant County Jail covered in bruises, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Wilhite can’t talk publicly about the case, she said. She hurts for the woman. Still, she said, she thinks she received adequate care behind bars.
“After a thorough review, there is no indication of a criminal offense occurring against (the woman) while in custody at the Tarrant County Jail,” the sheriff’s office wrote in a statement about the case.
The woman came into the jail already sick, Wilhite said. Many do. Their illnesses make her tasks, some days, Sisyphean.
“They’re coming to us already in the negative, and we’re just trying to get them up to baseline. And then once we get them up to baseline, then we can work on improving and helping them so this doesn’t happen again,” Wilhite said. “But like, we’re already coming in defeated.”
The sheer number of inmates, ever-changing, serves as its own challenge. This week, the jail is hovering between 4,300 and 4,500 people, she said. All of them are awaiting trial or transfer to a Texas Department of Corrections facility.
And since the pandemic, Wilhite estimates that more than half of them require and receive mental health services. The providers in the jail, like providers outside its walls, are stretched thin.
When she does interface with inmates, some try to manipulate her. And sometimes, she’ll secure a form of medical release for someone, only for them to break their terms and land back in jail.
Amid the hard days, Wilhite loves her job. The adrenaline, the helping people. It works for her, and it works for the family she drives the long way home to each day. Her hours are more consistent than when she worked in the intensive care unit.
And, she knows her colleagues at the corrections center have her back. They share a dark sense of humor, she said — a twisted levity that keeps them sane and stands in relief against their “heart(s) of gold.” On Friday, “jean day,” they gibe her for wearing scrubs.
“All of them, they’re like, ‘Why are you dressed as a nurse?’” she said, grinning. “I’m like, ‘Because I am.’”
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.