'We're not robots': Texas county detention officers protest pandemic staff shortage

The officers say that working 16-hour shifts for days on end is as unsafe as it is unsustainable

By Sarah Sinning

Dallas, Texas — Detention officers at the Dallas County Jail are saying enough is enough; late last month, a group of officers took to the streets to bring awareness to a staffing shortage they say has been exasperated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I've gone through the chain of command. I've spoken to all those people. I've filed lawsuits. Now it's time to get in the streets,” Officer Emmanuel Lewis told told NBCDFW.

Because the state requires a staffing ratio of one detention officer for every 48 inmates, overtime mandates are being used regularly to fill in the gaps. With a jail population no longer reduced for social distancing, and up to 300 officers out on leave at any one time — many due to COVID-19 quarantine — the remaining officers say they're repeatedly being ordered to work 16-hour shifts.

“We just want to let everybody know we're doing our jobs, but we're not robots. We can't continue to work three or four days of overtime,” Detention Officer Lessia Gray said.

The officers also expressed concern over the jail's coronavirus safety precautions.

"I caught COVID, me and my husband. I brought it home. The inmates aren't being made to wear masks, but we are,” said Detention Officer Markedra Benson.

According to the protesting officers, two of their colleagues at the facility died of COVID-19 in August; the sheriff's office says that only one of the deaths has been confirmed to be due to the virus. 

In a statement, Sheriff Marian Brown said that her office "continue[s] to work to get to a point where overtime is not a necessity."

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