JOHN KIRIAKOU: Imprisoned With Covid

Thanks to a courageous whistleblower, we can see how leadership of the Dallas Jail led to unnecessary deaths and how leaders continued to double down on their bad decisions.

Prison Bound. (Thomas Hawk, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

Pretty much every American has an opinion by now as to the origin of the Covid-19 virus.  Did it come from a lab?  Was it a biological weapon?  Did it leap from an animal to a human?  These are all questions to which we’ll likely never have a clear answer.  

But what we do know is that poor leadership at all levels of government and in the private sector resulted in the unnecessary illnesses and deaths of an untold number of people.  And with the possible exception of nursing homes, nowhere was the situation worse than in prisons.

I’m on record with my belief that American prisons and jails are so poorly run, are such bastions of corruption, that they promote recidivism, breed crime, and constitute, in many cases, torture.  

It’s actually worse than that.  Let’s take a look at what happened at the Suzanne Lee Kays Detention Facility at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center, otherwise known as the Dallas Jail, in Dallas Texas.  

The Dallas Jail is the perfect example of how bad leadership led to unnecessary deaths, and how bad leaders continued to double down on their bad decisions even when it became clear that they were making mistakes.  

Courageous Whistleblower

We know all this thanks to a courageous whistleblower by the name of Emmanuel Lewis.

Lewis is a detention service officer, a prison guard, in the Dallas Jail.  Covid hit when Lewis was on the job for only seven months, yet he had the guts to not just stand up and say that the jail was being mismanaged. 

He had the guts to lead a class-action suit in state court alleging that Dallas County Sheriff Marian Brown allowed conditions in the jail that had promoted the spread of Covid-19 and put officers at extreme risk. 

Furthermore, Lewis testified in a similar federal suit alleging that the jail was so mismanaged that some jail guards were essentially worked to death.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

As I said, Lewis was only on the job seven months when Covid-19 hit.  Almost immediately he recognized that the sheriff and jail leadership made no attempt to enforce social distancing in the facility, the 64-person pods were filled beyond capacity, there was poor hygiene and inadequate cleaning, and as crazy as it sounds, there was no Covid testing for prisoners or for staff. 

Furthermore, when prison guards tested positive for Covid on their own and filed for workers compensation, they were routinely denied.  In fact, according to the state lawsuit, a Dallas County human resources representative proudly declared that he had denied 99.9 percent of workers compensation claims related to Covid.  

Here are some of the things Lewis reported on:

  • As soon as the pandemic began, understaffing in the jail became a problem.  Consequently, the sheriff mandated that all prison guards had to work five consecutive 16-hour shifts until further notice. Some guards quit rather than work under those conditions. But others were unable to quit and they tried to tough it out.  But all that time in unsanitary conditions and in close proximity to infected prisoners put them further at risk.  Prison guard Porsha Bookman is one example.  After 19 days of double shifts she died of Covid.  She was 36 years old.  Prison guard Darren Finney is another example.  He also worked weeks of double shifts before dying of Covid, leaving behind two young children.

Texas National Guard setting up a Covid testing facility in Fredericksburg, April 19, 2020. (U.S. Army National Guard, Charles E. Spirtos, Public domain)

  • Yet another prison guard was so exhausted after weeks of double shifts that he crashed his car after falling asleep at the wheel on the way home.  He was almost killed.  And after the crash, a doctor for the county recommended that all detention officers have at least 12 consecutive hours of rest between shifts.  The sheriff ignored the recommendation.  In fact, the guard in the crash was told that if he didn’t work the 16-hour shifts — after the crash — that he would be fired.
  • The Dallas Jail is made up of pods that were built for 48 men.  But because of overcrowding, there are 64 men in each pod.  Emmanuel Lewis testified in court that those 64 men were made to share one bar of soap, there was no disinfectant for phones or common areas, and infected prisoners were not quarantined.  Prisoners were not given masks and bathrooms were cleaned using only water.
  • Mental health also took a hit during the pandemic, and incidents of suicide skyrocketed, both among prisoners and staff.  One former guard told the Dallas Express that “a lot of officers have mental health issues, but they don’t like to talk about it. Wardens don’t bring up stress or mental health either.”  The guard added that stressors include seeing deaths, suicides, and officer fights. That coupled with seemingly endless 16-hour shifts have resulted in guards lashing out angrily and emotionally, walking off the job, and even attempting suicide. One prisoner, Terry Stewart, committed suicide in March 2022 even though he was being held in the suicide watch wing of the medical unit. Guards didn’t even realize that he had killed himself until they were alerted by another prisoner that Stewart was lying in a pool of his own blood and appeared to be dead.

So what has been the solution to all this? 

So far it hasn’t been better pay for prison guards, who make almost one-third less than the national average. It hasn’t been better training.  It hasn’t been to go on a hiring spree or to borrow deputy sheriffs to double as prison guards temporarily. 

Really, there hasn’t been a solution. 

The only thing of note that has happened is that Emmanuel Lewis, the whistleblower, has been retaliated against.  The judge in the federal suit in which he testified — a Trump appointee — told him that if the sheriff retaliated against him that she wanted to know about it.  That happened.  Now it’s wait-and-see time for Lewis.

But for the staff and prisoners at the Dallas Jail, it remains every man for himself.

John Kiriakou is a former C.I.A. counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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5 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: Imprisoned With Covid

  1. Jeff Harrison
    January 11, 2024 at 00:26

    “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky

    Says a lot, eh?

  2. LarcoMarco
    January 10, 2024 at 20:14

    Opprobrious San Quentin prison notoriously took in Covid positive transfers. Saugus was for a time ranked as the #2 LA country Covid hot-spot, as it is the site of North County Jail.

  3. ray Peterson
    January 10, 2024 at 18:00

    John, you are gifted to be willing and able to speak
    truth with prophetic power: “American prisons . . .
    torture;” this fate awaits Julian Assange.
    American prisons and jails sound like what
    America and Israel are doing in Gaza: genocide.

  4. Lois Gagnon
    January 10, 2024 at 16:45

    The US prison system is a microcosm of this delapitated empire. The only people who matter are those who continue to serve the interests of empire. Everyone else is expendable and not worth keeping alive. The sooner we understand this, the sooner we can work together to shut this murderous behemoth down for good.

  5. evelync
    January 10, 2024 at 15:37

    Thank you John Kiriakou for this.
    We have top down mismanagement and corruption.
    It’s getting worse.
    I’ll try to share this with the Dallas Rep in congress who’s running against Ted Cruz for Senate.
    I get texts from him along with probably 10’s of thousands but I’ll try

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