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‘We need help.’ Tarrant County activists travel to Austin to seek more oversight of county jail

A photo of a government meeting room with the Lone Star seal of the state of Texas above a raised dais. Three women stand before the dais, one speaking at the podium, two on either side of her holding big signs whose messages are not visible.
Miranda Suarez
Activists who traveled from Tarrant County to Austin speak before the Texas Commission on Jail Standards on Aug. 3, 2023. They're holding signs with some of the many headlines cataloguing problems at the Tarrant County Jail.

A group of Tarrant County activists traveled to Austin this week to ask the state to perform surprise inspections of the Tarrant County Jail, where allegations of abuse and neglect behind bars have mounted for years.

In a meeting of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards at the Texas Capitol on Thursday, 11 people shared their concerns about the Tarrant County Jail, where at least 54 people have died in custody since 2017. Others have gone public with allegations of medical neglect and mistreatment.

One of the activists, Sharon Hines, pointed out that many people in jail are waiting for their court dates and haven’t been convicted of any crime.

“Do we really want the message to be, if you can’t afford bail, you may end up dead in the Tarrant County Jail?” she said.

Hines is involved with the Justice Network for Tarrant County, a new activist coalition whose members often speak on jail issues at Tarrant County Commissioners Court.

This is not the first time residents have sought intervention in Tarrant County’s jail system. Fort Worth’s Broadway Baptist Church, alongside activist groups ICE Out of Tarrant and United Fort Worth, sent a letter in June asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the jail.

The DOJ letter and petition gathered over 700 signatures, according to Texas A&M law professor Sara Zampierin, who represents the groups and helped craft the letter.

In Austin on Thursday, Nan Terry urged the commission to read that letter.

“It is crucial to look beyond the individual tragedies and ask ourselves, can we see a pattern of systemic negligence?” Terry said. “Can we see a disregard for the standards established by this commission?”

The DOJ letter lists some of the deaths, injuries and lawsuits that have made some jail issues public. Javonte Myers died of a seizure disorder behind bars in 2020, and two jailers were indicted for lying about checking on him. Kelly Masten, a disabled woman, left the jail in a coma in 2022.

Jackee Cox talked to the Commission on Jail Standards about KERA’s reporting on Cory Rodrigues, a former Tarrant County inmate whose beating behind bars was caught on tape, according to law enforcement.

All three of the jailers accused in the beating had their cases dismissed this summer, at prosecutors’ request. In a statement, the DA’s office said that after reviewing the evidence, it decided to dismiss the cases — but the office has yet to provide a full explanation for why it sought the dismissals.

A photo of a government meeting room. Sharon Hines, a Black woman with a short curly bob haircut, speaks at a podium to people sitting on a raise dais. The seats are almost full behind her.
Miranda Suarez
Sharon Hines spoke before the Texas Commission on Jail Standards at the state capitol on Aug. 3, 2023. She was one of 11 Tarrant County residents who made the trip to raise concerns about Tarrant County jail conditions.

Several speakers on Thursday also brought up the 2019 death of Robert Miller, who officials say died of a sickle cell crisis. AFort Worth Star-Telegraminvestigation found Miller probably didn’t have sickle cell – and that he likely died because jailers pepper-sprayed him at close range.

Tarrant County contracted with an outside investigator to reexamine Miller’s case but never went through with that review. Instead, the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office affirmed Miller’s cause of death, insisting that he did have a sickle cell crisis because he had sickle cell trait – meaning he carried the sickle cell gene but did not have the disease.

Medical experts have cast doubt on that conclusion, with one doctor telling the Star-Telegram the county is lying.

Dr. James G. Taylor at Howard University has spent 20 years treating adults with sickle cell disease, and he told KERA in May he’s never seen someone with just the trait dying of a sickle cell crisis – although there hasn’t been enough research to completely rule out the possibility, he said.

Even people with the full-blown disease dying of a sickle cell crisis is rare, Taylor said.

“Can it happen? Yes, I've seen it once. It was sudden and spontaneous, and the patient was under direct medical care," he said.

KERA has reached out to the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office, the agency in charge of the jail, for comment about Thursday’s meeting.

Tarrant County activists argue there has not been accountability for the sheriff’s office locally, and someone else needs to intervene.

“Send people down to investigate what’s going on in Tarrant County,” Jackee Cox said. “We need help.”

Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.

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Miranda Suarez is KERA’s Tarrant County accountability reporter. Before coming to North Texas, she was the Lee Ester News Fellow at Wisconsin Public Radio, where she covered statewide news from the capital city of Madison. Miranda is originally from Massachusetts and started her public radio career at WBUR in Boston.