Community Op-Ed on the Crisis in Our Nation’s Detention Centers, Jails, and Prisons

For weeks, medical professionals and advocates have been sounding the alarm: the spread of COVID-19 into our nation’s detention centers, jails, and prisons is inevitable, and it will be catastrophic for those inside and outside these facilities.

This week, we are only beginning to see the human costs of the carceral system’s inadequate response to the global pandemic. On Tuesday, Sheriff Brown announced that five people in the Dallas County Jail tested positive for COVID-19. This week, a person detained in an ICE facility—and an ICE employee in another ICE facility—tested positive, as did a person held in the Texas state prison system and three unaccompanied children in government custody. The predicted life-and-death crisis has begun and will almost certainly accelerate rapidly.

Unlike those of us on the outside, those who are held and work in jails, prisons, and detention centers—places designed to warehouse people in close quarters—cannot practice any form of social distancing. The people inside these facilities are reporting they don’t have enough soap to wash their hands and that hand sanitizer is unavailable because of its alcohol content. Testing capacity in our country remains sharply limited and people in custody, even under non-emergency circumstances, are often left unprotected from contagious diseases. For years, the immigration detention and criminal justice systems have had widespread problems of inadequate and substandard medical care. As medical professionals have pointed out “these facilities are designed to maximize control of the incarcerated population, not to minimize disease transmission or to efficiently deliver health care.” 

Because COVID-19 will spread in this context, criminal justice experts from across the country have called on criminal facilities to reduce the people held in custody and over 3,000 medical professionals called for widespread release of people detained in ICE facilities. 

We are faced with a moral crisis that requires immediate action. Leaders from across the country are working to release detained and incarcerated people before the virus spreads further. They are using proven tools like personal recognizance bonds and release on parole for people who have not yet made it through their cases or sentences. All of the DFW metroplex’s leaders need to fully commit to these efforts, or the virus will ravage the people in these facilities—including the staff who work there and their families.

We, over 30 community leaders and representatives of grassroots and impact-led organizations, legal service providers and law firms, medical providers, and religious and academic institutions, recognize the leaders in the DFW metroplex for the many difficult decisions they’ve made this month to make human life and public health our highest priority. The lives of people detained in our immigration and criminal justice systems are no different: they must be similarly prioritized. Swift and just action is overdue. 


Dallas Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines
Dallas Peace and Justice Center
DSA-North Texas
Equal Justice Center
Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square
Human Rights Initiative of North Texas
International Rescue Committee
La Monarca Foundation
Law Office of Paul S. Zoltan
Lopez & Freshwater PLLC
Mi Familia Vota
Mosaic Family Services
Movimiento Cosecha Denton
North Texas Dream Team
Palestine Action Committee of Texas
Poverty Law Section, State Bar of Texas
Sunrise Dallas
Take Back Oak Lawn
Trans Pride Initiative

Catie B., LMSW
Eric Cedillo
John Fullinwider, Co-Founder, Mothers Against Police Brutality
Patricia Freshwater
Amy Hamilton, RUN
Jennifer de Haro, Attorney
Changa Higgins, Dallas Policing Campaign Manager, Leadership Conference Education Fund
Kathleen Klein
Prof. Fatma Marouf, Texas A&M School of Law, Immigrant Rights Clinic
Natalie Nanasi, SMU Dedman School of Law
Melissa G. Thrailkill
Blake Ward
Paul S. Zoltan, Esq.

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