She cornered her sheriff at Whataburger. Can their alliance reform a Texas jail?

This article was published in partnership with KETK-TV 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.

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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.

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. (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. (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.”

After the meeting, Smith told Reynoso he was already working with the courts to free people accused of nonviolent crimes on “personal recognizance bonds,” meaning they wouldn’t have to pay bail. Payton Weidman, who covered the story for the local CBS affiliate, gave Reynoso some credit for the releases. “She started the conversation,” Weidman said.

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.

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.

Late that month, Reynoso got a call from the sheriff. “When you speak out, I’m proud of you,” he said, she recalled. She noticed he was no longer using words like “illegals” around her. “I think he has a good heart, deep down,” she said. “I’m realizing he won’t always say things openly.”

Those warm feelings lasted for a couple of weeks — until COVID-19 killed a man in the jail.

‘He was gasping for air’

On May 16, Reynoso got a call from a childhood friend whose uncle, Raul Rodriguez, had died after being hospitalized for COVID-19 almost a week earlier. The family said they had known he was in jail, but that they had not been told he was sick, much less in a hospital. They were furious. “If we had known, the whole family would have got together and prayed for his soul,” Reynoso’s friend, Yesenia Lara, said.

Later that day, a press release from the sheriff’s department said Rodriguez had been locked up since November, and was awaiting transfer to a state prison for a driving while intoxicated conviction, but listed the cause of death as “an undisclosed medical issue.”

Raul Rodriguez. (Courtesy of family)

Reynoso urged the family to tell their story and connected them to reporters at the Tyler Morning Telegraph. She also pushed Lara to speak at a county commission meeting. “I felt real good after I did that,” Lara said. “I felt like they heard that it hurt us.”

In a news story, Smith defended the jail’s failure to notify Rodriguez’s family of his illness by citing medical privacy laws. Reynoso was angry and disappointed with his response, but she is also waiting to learn more; much about the death will remain unclear until state investigators release a report.

The family, reporters and activists all heard from detainees who felt the jail should have done more after Rodriguez began complaining of symptoms. He “literally begged for help for three days,” Michael McKinney, a cellmate of Rodriguez’s, wrote in a message to a reporter. “The nurses and officers here would come in and tell him that he was fine, to drink water and eat … He was gasping for air and couldn’t smell or taste anything.”

Smith declined to discuss Rodriguez’s death, but he described the extensive efforts his staff took to keep COVID-19 contained. Early on, he developed a plan with a neighboring county to collaborate on quarantining jail detainees, and has managed to keep the outbreak to the smaller of the county’s two facilities. He began mass testing, he said, to contain the virus further to a single part of the facility. Still, he said, “Like anybody else, when COVID came along, we got caught with our pants down, didn’t have PPE,” referring to personal protective equipment.

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Even before Rodriguez’s death, Reynoso was becoming the hub for complaints from inside. A woman gave Reynoso’s phone number to her incarcerated husband, and he wrote it in pencil on a wall. Reynoso got a letter from a man who wrote that the jailers “don’t even give us soap to clean our hands.”

“Very few if any jailers wore masks or gloves,” Jason Stone, who was in the jail from February to April after failing a drug test while on probation, said. “We would ask guards, ‘What are they doing here to keep us from getting it? ‘Oh nothing, don’t worry about it, you’re not going to get it.’”

In April, Reynoso was contacted by two people who had worked at the jail; neither wanted to be named publicly but both described a culture of indifference. “We have been bullied for trying to keep the patients/inmates and officers safe and for keeping ourselves safe,” one wrote in a Facebook message to Reynoso.

Smith said that his staff did not deter anyone from taking safety precautions or wearing protective equipment. “Anything’s possible when you have 400 employees, it’s hard to know everything,” he said, but “if the complaint was directed at me, I would have received it.”

The number of detainees with an “active positive test” fell from 52 on June 11 to three as of Monday, even as the state is seeing a massive rise in cases. “We did a lot of cleaning,” the sheriff said. “We’ve got some PPE stocked up now.” He gave Reynoso credit for keeping the spotlight on the issue. “The first thing I want to do is be transparent … The more you keep things in the dark, the more it begins to stink.”

‘Still a lot of work to be done’

Throughout all of this, Reynoso had been talking daily to Gundu, of the Texas Jail Project. The two ferried complaints to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which is appointed by the governor and can send inspectors. The commission only has four inspectors for roughly 240 facilities, but many states have no independent oversight of jails at all.

The Texas commission declined to look into the allegations about cleanliness, according to response letters sent to the advocates, instead relying on reports from the jail’s own staff. But in mid-May, it sent inspector William Phariss for the jail’s annual inspection. His report did not mention COVID-19, but he did cite the jail for not serving people held there enough of certain foods or allowing them to go to a recreation area often enough.

Smith responded by hiring Pharris away from the commission to manage the jail, saying he wanted him to address these problems. “I don’t want to just meet minimum jail standards,” Smith said. “I want to go over and above.”

Dalila Reynoso has received letters and documents from people who are currently detained at the Smith County Jail. (Nitashia Johnson / for the Marshall Project and NBC News)

As she’s gotten deeper into the work, Reynoso has found some of the problems of people inside the jail go beyond the institution itself. She helped the families of two women with severe mental illnesses get them transferred from the jail to mental health facilities. Smith agrees there are far too many people with mental illnesses in his jail, and he has encouraged her to lobby with him on the issue at the state Legislature in Austin.

In June, Reynoso heard from a detainee that he’d seen maggots in his food, and she told the sheriff. He let her take a tour of the kitchen — ”Inmates will embellish stories,” he said — and she found it to be clean. She started thinking about what else she could ask for: Perhaps she could watch the jail from the inside, rather than always parking outside. She called the sheriff after the tour.

“I’m really trying,” she recalls him saying. She responded, “There is still a lot of work to be done.”