DMN & DOJ: So Much For the Silver Star
Get ready Dallas County officials. You are not going to get a silver star or a pat on the back. You are going to taken to federal court by the United States Department of Justice for this pattern of deliberate indifference. You will then either fight the Department of Justice (foolish) or you will enter into a verifiable consent decree with them (wise) wherein you will agree to do all of the things you should have been doing all along. Your day of reckoning awaits. Enjoy the ride.
Federal report says jail needs to clean up its act
Dallas County: Inquiry finds problems with medical care, sanitation
08:44 AM CST on Wednesday, March 8, 2006
By JAMES M. O’NEILL / The Dallas Morning News
Federal officials noted serious lapses in medical care for inmates and numerous sanitation problems at the Dallas County Jail after investigating the troubled facility, county officials said.
Dallas County officials said they were disappointed by the negative feedback they received from U.S. Justice Department investigators, who spent a week at the jail last month.
The Sheriff’s Department has started acting on some of the Justice Department’s recommendations to improve jail sanitation: cleaning out shower drains and planning to purchase warmer blankets so inmates won’t block air vents.
The Justice Department plans to return for further inspections this month.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards, meanwhile, is touring the jail this week as part of its annual inspection. The commission gave the jail failing grades the past two years.
County Judge Margaret Keliher laid some blame for the federal criticism on the University of Texas Medical Branch, which had handled jail health care for the past three years until its contract ran out March 1. Parkland Memorial Hospital now oversees jail health care.
She said that the problems cited to her by Justice Department inspectors during an exit interview after their visit were first noted more than a year ago in an expert’s report to county commissioners. That report noted that it sometimes takes weeks for inmates to receive medications for chronic physical illnesses and for mental illness.
“I was disappointed to find out that UTMB was not doing a better job with health care, including mental health” in light of all the attention the problem has received in the media in the past year, Ms. Keliher said.
Funding, staff concerns
UTMB officials noted that they had told county officials more than a year ago about the need for at least 50 more staffers to improve medical care at the jail but had to run the operation without any appreciable increase in funding or staff.
County commissioners did vote to increase the health care budget by $9 million for the fiscal year that began in September. Most of that, though, will pay for improvements that Parkland has in the works.
In addition, Dr. Owen Murray, UTMB’s chief physician executive, said the medical branch has worked with Parkland during the past six months to add nurses and staffers to screen for tuberculosis. He said UTMB and Parkland also worked together to add paramedics to conduct medical screening in the jail’s book-in area. Previously, jail guards without medical training conducted medical screening and often failed to identify prisoners with medical or mental health needs.
County commissioner Maurine Dickey said the county also received poor marks from the Justice Department for jail sanitation, particularly in areas that house the mentally ill.
In response, the Sheriff’s Department has had maintenance staff working overtime to clean out shower drains in the jail.
“The medical was something we don’t control, but the sanitary issues, that’s our fault,” said Jesse E. Flores, the Sheriff’s Department’s executive chief deputy. “Sometimes it takes somebody to kick us in the butt and tell us to wake up and do what needs to be done. I’m optimistic that in the long run we’ll be a better department for all of this.”
The Justice Department also recommended that the jail no longer have inmates do their own laundry, to “ensure proper cleanliness of the inmate uniforms.” The change would also improve sightlines for jail guards, since inmates would no longer hang uniforms to dry from balconies.
Inmate clothing is changed twice a week under state guidelines. The Justice Department recommended that clean clothing be provided three times a week.
The change would require the Sheriff’s Department to purchase additional clothing. As a result, officials plan another change that will save money in the long term – switching from the current one-piece prisoner jumper to a sturdier two-piece unit. If a part of the jumper wears out, the entire item must be discarded. But with a two-piece wardrobe, one piece might be saved even if the other piece wears out.
Two versions of the two-piece uniforms are under consideration. One could have come right out of a vintage Hollywood costume shop – white with black horizontal stripes. The other is orange with black stripes.
The Sheriff’s Department also has stopped selling newspapers in the jail because inmates who complain they are cold often wet the newspapers and paste them over air vents. “The Department of Justice recommended that this be stopped to improve the sanitation of the jail and air flow,” a sheriff’s briefing paper states. The sheriff has asked county commissioners for permission to purchase warmer blankets for the inmates.
The sheriff has also asked to buy mattress covers, instead of using two sheets, the current practice. The covers would better protect the mattresses and last longer than the sheets, the department said.
Purchasing an entire supply of mattress covers, warmer blankets and two-piece clothing will cost an estimated $620,400. Some of the department’s current clothing and bedding budget will cover that. But the commissioners would have to commit $325,000 from the county’s unallocated reserves to fully cover the changes.
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David Cell: (214) 538-6629