KERA: Fort Worth Activists Work With Texas A&M To Seek Federal Investigation Into Tarrant County Jail

Frustrated by what they see as a lack of action by local officials, Tarrant County activists are approaching the federal government directly to request an investigation into the Tarrant County Jail.

Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, along with activist groups ICE Out of Tarrant and United Fort Worth, are collecting signatures on a letter to the US Department of Justice, which they plan to send later this 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.

Jonathan Guadian, community organizer of ICE Out of Tarrant, has advocated for better prison conditions and more prison transparency for years. He and the other groups decided to send the letter to the Justice Department because the Tarrant County Commissioners Court, which oversees county government, did not hold the sheriff’s office accountable, he said.

“It’s a pattern that seems to repeat itself,” Guadian said. “A person dies and an investigation takes place, and then the same problem 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 jail is unacceptable and the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office — which operates the jail — has been opaque about the deaths, the letter said.

“Without rapid and effective action, the people of Tarrant County will lose many more community members to the violence and abuse at the Tarrant County Jail,” the letter said.

The 39-page letter collects news and public documents on alleged abuses in prison. There is the death of Javonte Myers, who died of a seizure disorder behind bars in 2020. His jailers have been indicted for lying about controlling him. Then there is the case of Kelly Masten, a disabled woman who came out of prison in a coma in 2022.

Activists have focused in recent months on the case of Robert Miller, a man who died in the custody of the Tarrant County Jail in 2019. His official cause of death was listed as sickle cell crisis, but an investigation by The Fort Worth Star-Telegram found that he probably didn’t have sickle cell disease and probably died because the jailers pepper sprayed him multiple times at close range.

Following the Star-Telegram report, 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 look into, 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 jailhouse in a press conference in April, the Star-Telegram reported.

“At no time was a jailer guilty of harm or abuse or, absolutely, as terms of homicide were used, that never occurred,” Waybourn said.

The activists’ letter to the Justice Department criticized the county’s lack of transparency when it comes to prison deaths. Attorneys for Robert Miller’s widow, Shanelle Jenkins, say it has been a struggle for her to obtain information about her husband’s death. Jenkins told the Star-Telegram he learned she had died from a newspaper article.

One goal of the letter and petition is to force the prison to be more open with information, said Sara Zampierin, a professor at the Texas A&M University School of Law and director of the school’s new Civil Rights Clinic, which began 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 his law students researched and wrote the letter to the Justice Department.

The complaint will be filed under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which allows the Justice Department to investigate systemic violations of constitutional rights in prisons, Zampierin said.

“Then, if they find such violations in their investigation, they can engage with the county to agree necessary reforms or file a lawsuit to remedy the problems,” Zampierin said.

The Justice Department has intervened twice in Texas county jails, according to its website. The department investigated the Dallas County Jail in 2005 and enforced “comprehensive reforms” in medical care, mental health care and sanitation. The county has made progress on those issues and agreed to further federal monitoring in 2012.

In 2009, the Justice Department found “unconstitutional conditions” at the Harris County Jail that did not provide individuals in custody with adequate medical care and did not protect them from physical harm.

This type of investigation is badly needed in Tarrant County, said Ryon Price, the senior pastor of Broadway Baptist Church. Price and his followers are frequent speakers at Tarrant County Commissioners’ Court meetings, and one of their most common requests is more transparency about the prison.

“The Tarrant County Jail is a sealed tomb,” Price said. “We’re calling on the Justice Department to help us open it up, so the truth can be found and lives can be saved.”

Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at msuar[email protected]. You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.

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