Experts watching Dallas County jails’ compliance with federal agreement
Dallas County: 6 health experts overseeing fixes as part of federal deal
12:00 AM CDT on Wednesday, June 13, 2007
By KEVIN KRAUSE / The Dallas Morning News
Dallas lawmakers helped kill a bill last month that would have required the county to pay for independent jail monitors, saying it would be too costly and could cause problems.
What they didn’t say was that Dallas County’s jails are already being monitored by independent jail-health experts the county was forced to hire this year under an agreement with the federal government.
County commissioners approved the one-year jail-health contracts for six experts in March to ensure that the county complies with a long list of jail fixes the Justice Department mandated in December after its investigation of jail conditions.
With that, Dallas County joined 12 other jails and correctional facilities across the nation that have been monitored by the Justice Department since 2000 because of federal civil rights investigations.
Dallas County has budgeted $100,000 to pay for the jail monitors, who are nationally recognized experts in correctional health care. The county must pay their rates of between $150 and $275 an hour as well as travel expenses.
Budget director Ryan Brown said the monitors are expected to visit the jails at least once every quarter, in addition to their other duties under the contracts. Their contracts expire in February, but Mr. Brown said he didn’t know how long they would be needed.
“We wanted someone DOJ was comfortable with. Most of them do this as a fairly regular process,” he said.
In December, the Justice Department concluded in its investigation of the county jails that dangerously inadequate health care contributed to the death and injury of numerous inmates.
Mr. Brown said the Justice Department used some of the current jail monitors as consultants in that investigation.
The department’s civil rights division is responsible for enforcing the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. Because jail and prison authorities prefer to avoid litigation, most such investigations result in consent agreements under which states and counties agree to make changes.
The Justice Department uses the agreed-upon monitors to make sure jails and prisons complete the improvements they promised to make under the agreements.
In other cases, the monitors are court ordered and a judge appoints them.
The Dallas County jail system, the nation’s seventh largest, has also run afoul of state requirements. But aside from annual inspections and the occasional unannounced inspection, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards doesn’t have a more efficient way to monitor compliance.
Legislation introduced last month by Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, would have required Texas jails that consistently fail inspections to pay for private jail monitors hired by the commission.
That was viewed as being directed mainly at Dallas County, which has failed state inspections four times in a row.
Under the bill, jails that failed inspections three times would have been subjected to having a private jail monitor on site for 90 days who would report progress or problems to the county.
Some local lawmakers such as Rep. Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, thought it would be cheaper in the long run to hire jail monitors than to settle lawsuits over unsanitary conditions and inadequate jail health.
But many other Dallas legislators thought the measure would be too costly and could provide a financial incentive for private consultants to find problems. Sheriff’s and other county officials also opposed it, saying they’re already working on improvements to health care and sanitation in the jails.
The monitoring team agreed to by federal officials and Dallas County includes Dr. Ronald Shansky, a prison-health expert who has been a court-appointed monitor of jails and prisons across the country for 30 years.
The team leader is Dr. Michael Puisis, who wrote a study commissioned by Dallas County in 2005 that outlined a number of major flaws in the county’s jail medical delivery.
Dr. Puisis is a specialist in correctional health who has held top medical positions with Cook County Hospital in Chicago as well as New Mexico’s corrections system. He did not respond to calls seeking comment.
The other team members are Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, Madeleine LaMarre, Leonard Rice and Catherine Knox.
The same experts, except for Mr. Rice and Ms. Knox, teamed up most recently to monitor correctional facilities in Delaware under a similar agreement with the Justice Department.
Dr. Shansky, the former medical director for the Illinois Department of Corrections, said he was impressed with what he saw during his recent two-day visit to Dallas County.
“I’m very encouraged. They have a very good attitude,” he said. “They really want to make sure they’re doing as well as they can. They’re very open to putting whatever systems are available in place to make sure care is provided.”
Dr. Shansky said he sometimes encounters resistance from correctional authorities. He said Parkland Memorial Hospital is “very likely to get the job done.”
Parkland took over jail health duties from the University of Texas Medical Branch in March 2006. Since then, Parkland has instituted many changes, including cell-side medical delivery, a plan for a jail infirmary, better health screening at intake and a better system of dispensing medication.
“We’re going to work with them and give them guidance. It looks like they have a good leadership team,” Dr. Shansky said.
Parkland officials say they are willing to work with the monitors.
“We’re following all the necessary steps to gain compliance with the monitoring, and so far everything has been going very well,” Parkland spokesman Robert Behrens said.