As COVID-19 Cases Surge, Some Incarcerated People Remain Behind Bars After Making Bail

Electronic monitoring companies refuse to touch coronavirus-positive inmates. That means they can’t go home.

The Lew Sterrett Justice Center in downtown Dallas.
The Lew Sterrett Justice Center in downtown Dallas. Michael Barajas

Electronic monitoring companies refuse to touch coronavirus-positive inmates. That means they can’t go home.

The Lew Sterrett Justice Center in downtown Dallas.
The Lew Sterrett Justice Center in downtown Dallas. Michael Barajas

At night, he prayed. To 35-year-old Ideare Bailey, it seemed like the only thing he could do. He was arrested on a theft charge on April 6, and placed in a Dallas County jail pod with 63 other men. Jail didn’t bother him, but his bunkmate did. Ever since Bailey arrived, the man had been coughing, and on the outside, COVID-19 was all anyone talked about. The virus is particularly dangerous in prisons, and Bailey had heard about a recent outbreak in the Dallas County jail.

In Bailey’s pod, separation was impossible. There were no cells or doors, only cots on bunk beds in tight-knit groups of four. Soon, Bailey started to develop his own symptoms. He says he told officers that his head was throbbing and he thought he had a fever, but they wouldn’t take his temperature.

On April 10, two days after first expressing concerns to jail officers, he was taken to the infirmary. His fever was 106 degrees, and he tested positive for COVID-19. When Ideare phoned his wife, Kivia, to share his diagnosis, she collapsed. The couple hadn’t planned to pay  Ideare’s $100,000 bail, but, shaken by the possibility of her husband dying, Kivia scrambled to get enough cash for a bail bond. But paying his cash bail wouldn’t be enough to get Ideare out of jail: A judge also required Ideare to wear an electronic leg monitor, and pretrial services, which supervise defendants before their court dates, refused to get near him.

“When I asked why they wouldn’t fit him with a monitor, they told me, ‘He has COVID-19. We’re not going to touch him,’” Kivia later testified, recounting what the pretrial services employee told her. “If [your] husband had not been out committing crime, he wouldn’t have been placed in the Dallas County jail to get COVID-19.”

As COVID-19 continues to ravage jails and prisons, attorneys say public officials in charge of electronic monitoring are keeping inmates locked up long after they should have been released. Ideare is one of at least five Dallas County inmates who caught COVID-19 while incarcerated but remained in jail long after making bail. In all five cases, public officials refused to touch them.

Proponents of electronic monitoring argue that the practice is a good way to reduce jail populations while keeping the public safe. But while Dallas County judges continue to order ankle monitors for people out on bail, the employees in charge of fitting inmates with these devices have frequently refused to do so. Employees of monitoring tech companies and pretrial service employees are both present for these fittings, and at times, one or both parties have refused to touch anyone with COVID-19. That refusal only contributed to a growing population of inmates with ankle monitor requirements. In Dallas County Jail, for instance, in April and May, weeks after the coronavirus made its way into the facility, hundreds of inmates sat for days awaiting ankle monitors. Attorney Alison Grinter says at least five of them—and possibly many more—had already paid their cash bail.

“Because of the virus, no one wants to touch anyone, even if they’ve made bail,” Grinter says. “As a result, more people are staying in county jails for longer than they should, and when judges continue to require these monitors, they’re adding one more hurdle that keeps people in jail even longer.”

Ankle monitors are becoming more prevalent throughout Texas. Dallas County judges have mandated more than 600 ankle monitors this year, including upwards of 300 since the pandemic began. In Harris County, in Houston, the use of monitors jumped from 13 in 2015 to more than 500 last year.

Amy Fly, an attorney who specializes in death penalty litigation, recently assisted a lawsuit that called for the release of medically vulnerable inmates from Dallas County Jail. “The stakes here are the same [as a death penalty case]”, she says. “Even though it’s not supposed to be that way. People could potentially die even if they’re not convicted.”

In Dallas County, the pretrial services department coordinates with the monitoring tech company Sentinel to fasten people with monitors and escort them from the county jail. Counties that employ an “offender-funded” monitoring program (as Dallas County does) require the person wearing the monitor to pay a daily fee, and typically require an installation fee, too. All told, an ankle monitor can cost $300 per month—a cost the “offender” pays to the county, who then uses part of that money to cover the expenses incurred by their contact with the tech company.

Ezekiel Tovar, another Dallas man who tested positive for COVID-19, also stayed in jail two additional weeks after making bail. He says the Sentinel employees wouldn’t touch him. He was eventually fitted with a monitor and released. Sentinel did not respond to requests for comment.

Tovar says he was placed in a tiny holding cell with 10 other detainees, and then transferred to another holding cell with four people, none of whom had tested positive for COVID-19. Tovar tested positive for COVID-19 three times in jail, but never had any symptoms. Even after testing positive, Tovar spent hours surrounded by other inmates, and was given little else beyond aspirin and lunches of dry bologna sandwiches.

Duane Steele, deputy director of Dallas’ pretrial services department, says that the county currently has no prisoners who have made bail but are awaiting release because of ankle monitors.

North Texas attorney Alison Grinter says she is aware of at least five people who have spent days in jail after making bail because their bond mandated an ankle monitor. All five had COVID-19.

“There’s no flexibility or room for creative problem solving in this system,” she says. “There’s a real unwillingness to see anything from the perspective of people who are locked up. Let’s not forget that this is county jail. These people haven’t even been convicted of anything yet.”

Ultimately, Ezekiel Tovar received help from defense attorneys and was released to his house, where he is recovering.

When Ideare Bailey was released, his wife Kivia was waiting for him. At first, she didn’t recognize him. “He was too skinny,” she says. “It looked like he was a different person.”

Two days after his release, as a part of the lawsuit Ideare was party to, Kivia testified in court about their struggles: She described how she had to empty her checking account, get a loan from her retirement fund, and pawn her wedding ring to pay bail. Then no one wanted to touch her husband, or let him go.

On May 22, a district judge declined to take action against the county.

While a new lawsuit once again calls on Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown to release medically vulnerable inmates, Ideare has still not been fitted for an ankle monitor: He had a fever when he returned to pretrial services to get one, but was told to come back later, he says. He’s glad to be home, but he spends a lot of time thinking about his day in court.

“I pray that they hear what I have to say,” he says. “And I pray that they listen.”

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Tyler Hicks is a writer living in Dallas.


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