Frustrated with what they consider a lack of action from local officials, Tarrant County activists are going directly to the federal government to ask for an investigation of the Tarrant County Jail.
Fort Worth’s Broadway Baptist Church, alongside activist groups ICE Out of Tarrant and United Fort Worth, are gathering signatures on a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, which they plan to send out at the end of the month. Students and faculty at the Texas A&M University School of Law’s Civil Rights Clinic represent the activist groups and put together the letter.
ICE Out of Tarrant community organizer Jonathan Guadian has been advocating for better jail conditions, and more jail transparency, for years. He and the other groups decided to send the letter to the Department of Justice because the Tarrant County Commissioners Court, which oversees county government, has not held the sheriff’s office accountable, he said.
“It’s a pattern that seems to repeat itself,” Guadian said. “A person dies and an investigation is held by them, and then the same issue happens the next week, the next month. We want to break that cycle.”
Data from the Texas Attorney General’s Office shows that at least 52 people have died in Tarrant County Jail custody since 2017, some after alleged mistreatment and neglect.
The death rate in the jail is unacceptable, and the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office – which runs the jail – has been less than transparent about the deaths, the letter argues.
“Without swift and effective intervention, the people of Tarrant County will lose many more community members to violence and mistreatment in the Tarrant County Jail,” the letter states.
The 39-page letter compiles news reports and public records about alleged abuses in the jail. There’s the death of Javonte Myers, who died of a seizure disorder behind bars in 2020. His jailers were indicted for lying about checking on him. Then there’s the case of Kelly Masten, a disabled woman who left the jail in a coma in 2022.
Activists have focused in recent months on the case of Robert Miller, a man who died in Tarrant County Jail custody in 2019. His official cause of death was listed as a sickle cell crisis, but a Fort Worth Star-Telegram investigation found he likely didn’t have sickle cell and probably died because jailers pepper-sprayed him multiple times at close range.
After the Star-Telegram’s reporting, the county hired a third-party expert to review Miller’s autopsy. But KERA reported in April that the county never sent that expert anything to review, and Miller’s family and community members are still waiting for answers.
The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment before this story’s deadline, but Sheriff Bill Waybourn defended his jail at a press conference in April, the Star-Telegram reported.
“At no time has a jailer been at fault for hurting or abusing or, absolutely, as terms of murdering have been used, that has never occurred,” Waybourn said.
The activists’ letter to the Department of Justice criticized the county’s lack of transparency when it comes to jail deaths. Attorneys for Robert Miller’s widow, Shanelle Jenkins, say it’s been a struggle for her to get any information about her husband’s death. Jenkins told the Star-Telegram she learned he was dead from a newspaper article.
One of the goals of the letter and the petition is to force the jail to be more open with information, said Sara Zampierin, a Texas A&M University School of Law professor and director of the school’s new Civil Rights Clinic, which started in January.
The Civil Rights Clinic works with local organizations to help advocate for civil rights issues.
Broadway Baptist, United Fort Worth and ICE Out of Tarrant are clients of the clinic. Zampierin and her law students researched and wrote the letter to the Department of Justice.
The complaint will be submitted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which allows the Department of Justice to investigate systemic violations of constitutional rights in jails, Zampierin explained.
“Then, if they find such violations in their investigation, they can either engage with the county to agree on necessary reforms or file a lawsuit to remedy the problems,” Zampierin said.
The Department of Justice has intervened twice in county jails in Texas, according to its website. The department investigated the Dallas County Jail in 2005 and mandated “comprehensive reforms” in medical care, mental health care and sanitation. The county made progress on those issues and agreed to further federal monitoring in 2012.
In 2009, the Department of Justice found “unconstitutional conditions” at the Harris County Jail, which failed to provide people in custody with proper medical care and didn’t protect them from physical harm.
That kind of investigation is much-needed in Tarrant County, said Ryon Price, the senior pastor of Broadway Baptist Church. Price and his congregants are frequent speakers at Tarrant County Commissioners Court meetings, and one of their most common requests is more transparency about the jail.
“The Tarrant County Jail is a sealed tomb,” Price said. “We are asking the Department of Justice to help us open it up, in order that the truth can be found and lives can be saved.”
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