As COVID-19 spread in a Texas jail, an activist and a sheriff formed an unlikely alliance

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This article was published in partnership with NBC News and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for The Marshall Project’s newsletter, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

With her 4-year-old in the back seat, Dalila Reynoso parked between a gun store and a bail bond agency in downtown Tyler, Texas, peering through the window at the Smith County Jail. When she saw a deputy without a mask on, she snapped a photo. When she saw another fail to wipe down his vehicle, she jotted it down in her notebook.

It was mid-April, and Reynoso had begun regularly staking out the facility in this conservative east Texas county of 230,000, in the hopes of protecting those detained inside. She was already a local activist, but COVID-19 and the threat it poses to vulnerable people in prisons and jails has turned her into a full-blown citizen watchdog.

She now tracks the jail’s population and the coronavirus case count, questions Sheriff Larry Smith and other officials in public and private forums, collects complaints from jailers and detainees, counsels distraught family members and spurs local media coverage, all to keep those in jail safe from the virus and other dangers, including inadequate mental health care.

Reynoso, 38, began working in immigration advocacy after President Donald Trump’s election and soon began monitoring conditions in the local jail, as well. While many of her peers were bemoaning Trump’s policies toward the undocumented, she was coming to realize how many key decisions were made by people she could persuade face to face.

“At a local level there is so much power … you need advocates willing to have uncomfortable conversations with elected officials,” she said. “I think God gives everyone a gift and a talent and this is what he has placed for me to do.” She works part-time, but the jail advocacy has taken over her life, as she lives off her limited savings while raising two daughters.

How an activist fought for answers when COVID-19 threatened a county jail in Texas

JULY 1, 202004:27

New Orleans, New York, and a few other cities have “court watch” programs to monitor judges and prosecutors. Reynoso’s work suggests what a local “jail watch” effort might look like, offering a glimpse of how activists might keep up the pressure on their local criminal justice systems even after the current protests against police violence ebb.

Krishnaveni Gundu, co-founder of the Texas Jail Project, which advocates for better conditions and helps family members, has been advising Reynoso.

Gundu said Americans should be asking, “What can we all learn from Dalila at a time when we feel so helpless and hopeless?”

‘She started the conversation’

There are more than 3,000 jails in the United States, usually run by sheriffs, holding people after they’re arrested and before they go to court or to prison. All that churn has made them catalysts for the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Smith County, which holds more than 700 people in two facilities, recently faced one of the worst jail outbreaks in Texas, reporting at one point that more than 50 detainees had been infected with the virus. One has died.

Still, Smith, the county’s sheriff, has done more than some of his peers to combat the spread of COVID-19. In March, after Reynoso first called attention to the dangers of overcrowding, he released a larger share of people from the jail than the statewide average. In May, he agreed to test every detainee and staffer, which is how the extent of the jail outbreak came to light. And he has encouraged Reynoso’s activism, even when it’s made him look bad. “She’s got a heart as big as Dallas,” he said. “Thank God she got involved.”

Sheriff Larry Smith outside of the Smith County Sheriff's Office in Tyler, Texas.
Sheriff Larry Smith outside the Smith County Sheriff’s Office in Tyler, Texas. Nitashia Johnson / for the Marshall Project and NBC News

Their unlikely friendship began in December, when Reynoso tried to corner the sheriff while he ate breakfast at the local Whataburger restaurant.

Reynoso’s parents — a welder and a seamstress — had come as undocumented immigrants to Tyler from Mexico in the late 1970s, and gained legal status under the amnesty policies of President Ronald Reagan. Her father told her, “Degrees don’t matter, the money you make doesn’t matter, if you forget where you came from, who we are.” She had a child while still in high school and spent her 20s working as a medical assistant. In 2017, she took a job with Justice for Our Neighbors East Texas, a Methodist-backed effort to provide legal services to immigrants.

Through that work, she learned that Smith, who had been in office since 2013, was helping federal immigration officials deport people who had been arrested. She also met several undocumented women who might qualify for what’s called a “U visa” because they had been the victims of crimes. But they needed signatures from the sheriff, so Reynoso started calling and showing up at his office.

She found him dismissive: “I’d see him in passing, and say, ‘I went to your office.’ Then he’d say, ‘I’ve been really busy.’” So when she learned where he often ate breakfast, she drove over. “I waited for three hours,” she said.

The sheriff was walking back to his table from the drink machine when they made eye contact. “I was busted,” he recalled. He said she could have five minutes, but she kept the conversation going for close to an hour. He gave her his cellphone number. Not long after, she questioned him publicly at a town meeting over immigration policy, but the two began to talk more often by phone.

In January, he took her on two jail tours, and she was shocked to see how outnumbered the jailers were. “They had a pod with 48 people and one jailer,” she recalled, “I said, ‘That’s kind of scary!’” She found herself feeling sympathetic to the sheriff, thinking, “I’m sure your blood pressure is high when you go home.”

Sheriff Larry Smith's boots.
Sheriff Larry Smith’s boots. Nitashia Johnson / for the Marshall Project and NBC News

In March, as COVID-19 began hitting prisons and jails, she used what she’d seen on the tours to lobby county officials. “People share bathrooms, laundry, eating areas,” she said. “The toilets in their cells do not have a lid.” After she spoke at one county meeting, the head of the local health department told the commission that Reynoso’s speech made him realize, “I need to have a conversation with the sheriff.”

By early April, after the jail population dropped from 933 to 775, the county’s two jails were at roughly two-thirds capacity. (The sheriff, in line with an executive order from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, said he would not let out people accused of violent crimes.) The drop was slightly above the statewide average that month, but was meager by the standards of Oregon, where some jails have cut their populations by as much as 75 percent. Elsewhere in the country, some sheriffs have refused to release anyone because of COVID-19.

Smith County Jail in Tyler, Texas.
Smith County Jail in Tyler, Texas. KETK

When Reynoso heard about one man due to be released but with nowhere to live, she exchanged texts with the sheriff to coordinate, and drove the man to a shelter. “You’re great,” the sheriff texted her, “with a Grande Corazon.”

Terry Phillips, a county commissioner, said COVID-19 sped up an ongoing conversation about the expense of having so many people in jail. “Every day someone is sitting in the jail, it’s $69 that could be going to fix my constituents’ roads,” he said. “I think this will maybe be a good history lesson. If we did it for the COVID, why can’t we just do it period?”

By April, the county had mostly stopped jailing anyone arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors. The sheriff was unsure whether all of the changes would stick, but said there had been no increase in crime.

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