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A disabled woman left the Tarrant County Jail and is in the ICU. Her family's demanding change

Kristina Salinas, a woman with long, light brown hair, holds up a photo of her sister's bruised legs. She stands before a group of people holding signs behind her at a protest.
Miranda Suarez
/
KERA
Kristina Salinas holds up a photo of her sister Kelly Masten's legs, which are covered in huge bruises. She said the bruises likely come from falling during seizures she had while in her cell at the Tarrant County Jail.

Statewide and local advocacy groups are calling for the resignation of Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn. Families and activists have raised the alarm for years over the number of jail deaths and alleged mistreatment of inmates.

Kelly Masten is 38 years old, but mentally, she's a child. That’s according to her sister, Kristina Salinas, who said Masten has a severe form of epilepsy that causes daily seizures. The family has always been adamant about taking care of Masten at home.

"She is our family. We love her. We never wanted her to be cared for by strangers. Because you hear of horror stories like this," Salinas said.

The horror story she’s referring to is Masten’s 10-day stint in the Tarrant County Jail, which she left covered in bruises and comatose, her family said. Masten's story was first reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

About two dozen people protested in downtown Fort Worth on Tuesday morning for Masten, at an event organized by the Texas Jail Project alongside local criminal justice activist organizations like United Fort Worth and ICE Out of Tarrant.

"Why didn't they do something about it?"

Masten ended up in jail after she bit her grandmother following a long day of seizures, Salinas told the crowd at the protest. When Masten’s grandmother called 911, Salinas said, it was because she didn’t know who else to call, and she expected Masten to get medical help.

"So many systems in Tarrant County let Kelly down from the moment that 911 was called," Salinas said.

The bite happened on April 11, and a criminal complaint against Masten was filed on April 14, court records show. The charges have since been dismissed.

The jail let Kelly Masten go without seizure medication, even though her family brought the medication to the jail, said Danny Masten, her father.

"Visitation was on a monitor, and I can see she was having a seizure at that time. And I told them. They said, 'There's nothing we can do about it. She won't take her medicine,'” Danny remembered. “Well, Kelly has to be coaxed into taking her medicine sometimes. And if they saw that, why didn't they do something about it?"

Other neglect allegations and jail deaths

Activists and jail inmates’ families have raised the alarm about conditions in the Tarrant County Jail for years. At least 39 people have died in jail custody since 2019, according to the Texas Jail Project, citing data from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Masten's family members are also not the first to allege that their loved one did not get proper medical care in the jail. The family of Javonte Myers, who also had a seizure condition and died in the Tarrant County Jail in 2020, filed a lawsuit alleging that Myers lay dead in his cell for hours before being discovered. Two jailers have been indicted for allegedly lying that they checked on Myers.

Another lawsuit says jailers allowed a woman with severe mental disabilities to give birth alone in her jail cell. Her baby later died.

Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn’s main job is to administer the county jail. The activists who organized the protest for Kelly Masten are now calling for Waybourn’s resignation and a county investigation into jail procedures, among other reforms.

“We are tired of our taxpayer dollars paying for death and harm in the name of public safety,” said Pamela Young with United Fort Worth.

The Tarrant County Sheriff's Office shared a statement saying that jailers monitored Masten closely while she was in the jail, and that she took two trips to the hospital during her incarceration.

"After a thorough review, there is no indication of a criminal offense occurring against Ms. Masten while in custody at the Tarrant County Jail," the statement reads.

After marching, the protesters went upstairs to speak their minds to county commissioners, who were meeting on Tuesday morning.

Masten's sister, Kristina Salinas, told commissioners Masten is still in the ICU at JPS Hospital, struggling with pneumonia, showing little brain activity and entering her 21st day on a ventilator. She asked them to look at the photos of the huge bruises covering Masten's body, likely from falling while having seizures in her cell, she said.

"I would like for you to take a look at those pictures and tell me, is that not shameful?” Salinas said.

Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks promised to address the problems with the jail.

“It disturbs me that there are so many people still in our county jail with mental and developmental disabilities. We need to do something about that, and we will,” he said.

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

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