Is jail papering over problems?

by Sherry Jacobson/ The Dallas Morning News

Cleaning up the Dallas County Jail took on a whole new meaning last week.

Thanks to a recent federal inspection, prisoners will be getting another change of underwear, for starters.

Instead of two clothing changes a week, inmates will get three, which means the county needs to buy more underwear, socks, canvas deck shoes and bath towels.

Prisoners also will not be required to wash their own clothing any longer, eliminating the messy drip-drying of prison garb throughout the cellblocks.

Such improved standards of cleanliness are the county’s initial response to the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into possible civil rights violations in the county jail.

But one troubling change was slipped into the jail’s list of so-called sanitary improvements.

The jail operators have decided it’s time to prohibit newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News, from being sold or read by the vast majority of prisoners.

This first-ever ban on newspaper sales in the Dallas County Jail went into effect last week.

And it smacks of retaliation against The News’ ongoing coverage of the jail’s assorted problems.

Of course, you would expect a journalist to react suspiciously to any newspaper ban. But I’m not alone in this line of thinking.

“It sounds like someone wants to keep the prisoners from knowing what’s going on with this investigation. Perhaps some folks are trying to silence some voices in the jail,” said David Finn, a lawyer for the family of James Mims, a mentally ill inmate who nearly died in 2004 after water to his cell was turned off for two weeks.

Laurance Priddy, a lawyer with Advocacy Inc., a nonprofit group that advocates for people with disabilities, called the ban “regrettable because prisoners will be deprived of in-depth stories you find in the newspaper.”

But such a ban does not violate Texas jail standards, said Terry Julian, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. The state requires only that prisoners have access to a television, radio or newspaper.

“Most jails do not allow newspapers to come in anymore because they cause a fire hazard,” he said.

Dallas County officials defended the newspaper prohibition as having nothing to do with the jail coverage in The News – or in any other paper for that matter.

It was necessary, they said, because of the way some prisoners were using their newspapers.

The inmates would repeatedly dampen their papers with water and use them to cover the vents in their cells when cold air was coming through.

The federal inspectors cited these pasted-over vents as a sanitation problem and recommended that the practice be stopped, according to the county.

After some discussion by the jail staff, it was decided that the best way to resolve the ventilation problem was to ban newspapers, said Edgar McMillan, the jail’s deputy chief over detention administration.

“The ventilation system doesn’t work properly in the jail because the prisoners are constantly covering up the vents with newspapers and magazines,” he said. “If we had a fire, the system wouldn’t be able to detect it.”

Jail officials eventually plan to ban magazines, too.

The jail operators did not consider the obvious remedy, such as turning up the thermostat in the jail to make it warmer, the deputy chief said, because the temperatures are kept within the range dictated by state standards.

“We keep it between 65 and 85 degrees,” he said.

To reduce discomfort at the cooler temperatures, the county has decided to purchase heavier blankets for the prisoners.

Deputy Chief McMillan said the trouble with newspapers went far beyond ventilation. Some prisoners have been known to fashion a “significant club” out of the paper, he said. Others have used it to cover the bars of their cells for total privacy.

“It’s been a problem for years and years,” said the 35-year veteran of the department. “We should have done it a long time ago.”

But it seemed highly suspicious when Deputy Chief McMillan called The News and canceled the 250 copies delivered to the jail every day after the newspaper published critical reports about widespread problems at the facility.

Deputy Chief McMillan denied that the canceled subscriptions had anything to do with the stories.

And he insisted that a few copies of The News would be offered to prisoners in solitary confinement, where TV and radio aren’t available. But those papers would be retrieved at the end of the day.

The jail chief said he enjoys reading the newspaper every day. In fact, he brings his home-delivered copy to the jail and shares it with his staff.

“I look at it, after they all look at it,” he said.

And if there’s a juicy story about problems in the jail, maybe he’ll give the prisoners a heads up.

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