Dallas Jail: Here We Go Again

Inmate’s water cut for 4 days
Dallas County: Jail investigating guard’s apparent rules violation

07:25 AM CDT on Wednesday, August 17, 2005

By JAMES M. O’NEILL / The Dallas Morning News

A mentally ill inmate at the Dallas County Jail was left in his cell without running water for four days this month after a jail guard apparently violated a year-old policy and ordered the water turned off without getting higher approval, jail officials say.

The inmate’s health was not affected, officials say, but the incident is causing an outcry among mental health advocates because it comes a year after a high-profile case in which an inmate nearly died after his water had been turned off for two weeks.

“It’s still hit and miss in the Dallas County Jail,” said David Finn, an attorney who filed a federal suit against the county for the family of James Mims, the inmate who nearly died last year. “It would seem high time that an outside investigation be initiated into these continuing barbaric procedures. They’ve been going on for five to 10 years, and it’s painfully obvious that our local leaders are unwilling or unable to change things.”

Sgt. Don Peritz, the Sheriff’s Department spokesman, said that when Sheriff Lupe Valdez heard about the latest incident, she checked on the inmate’s condition and called for an internal investigation. He said she was furious at the apparent violation.

The inmate, Gil Martinez, 30, had been arrested on a misdemeanor criminal trespass charge. He was being held in a closed behavioral observation cell on the fourth floor of the jail’s west tower when he apparently flooded the cell by stopping up the stainless steel toilet and sink unit.

Inmates in closed observation cells are generally confined there 23 hours a day.

Sgt. Peritz said that at 10:40 p.m. Aug. 3, the water was shut off at the request of a detention officer. Only on Aug. 7 did another detention officer notice that the water was off and told a supervisor, who had Mr. Martinez sent to a nurse to ensure he was not dehydrated or otherwise affected.

Marsha Canright, spokeswoman for the University of Texas Medical Branch, which oversees jail health care, said two health care workers also noted that Mr. Martinez’s water had been turned off and reported it Aug. 7.

Shortly after the Mims incident in April 2004, the Sheriff’s Department updated its policy on turning off water in the cells of disruptive inmates. Sgt. Peritz said the policy requires that a detention officer who sees an inmate flooding his cell notify a supervisor, who then advises the jail commander. The jail commander makes the final call on whether to shut off the water.

If the water is turned off, it must be turned back on within 24 hours, and it must be back on to allow three successive eight-hour shifts a chance to flush the toilet. In addition, there must be face-to-face contact with the inmate twice every hour while water is off, and the inmate must be given three opportunities a day to receive drinking water.

In this case, the protocol was apparently not followed, Sgt. Peritz said.

“I’m grateful they have these new policies in place, but this incident tells me the staff is not always aware of the importance of the policies,” said Vivian Lawrence, a criminal justice expert with the Mental Health Association of Dallas. She also questioned why it took four days for someone else on the jail staff to notice the water had been shut off.

“Do they have no reporting during the day? Do they just come and go? Is there no accountability to their superiors?” she said.

Sgt. Peritz said the internal investigation will look into every aspect of the incident.

In an e-mail to Sheriff Valdez, Ms. Lawrence asked, “What possible explanation could there be for any human being to be without water for five days? What needs to happen for this behavior to change?”

Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield, chairman of a committee to improve the much-maligned health care in the jail, said Sheriff Valdez “has to get hold of her employees and tell them to quit treating people like that.”

He said extra training is essential to help jail guards understand how to properly handle inmates who are mentally ill. He said Ms. Lawrence has repeatedly offered to train jail staff at the jail’s convenience.

The sheriff has previously said she welcomed such offers for free training, but it would cost the department in overtime to cover staff in training.

Mr. Mayfield said the cost should not prevent the training from taking place. “We should be able to just sit down and work that out,” he said.

Ms. Lawrence said she has even offered to provide training on Saturdays on her own time. She said she already provides training for new recruits.

But they often start work before they receive their academy training, she said, and it’s difficult for her in four hours to counter what the recruits learn from veteran employees. She said that’s why training for veteran jail staff is essential.

E-mail joneill@dallasnews.com

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