The Blame Game Continues-DMN

No party has lock on jail’s woes

08:51 AM CST on Saturday, December 23, 2006
S. Jacobson, Dallas Morning News

The Dallas County Jail has been a malingering mess for years.

But suddenly, the Republican Party is upset about it.

Kenn S. George, the GOP’s leader in Dallas County, vented his outrage at the jail’s health-related problems in a letter to the editor this week.

He lashed out at the “hazardous conditions, preventable deaths and spiraling costs.” And the person he holds responsible for those problems is Sheriff Lupe Valdez, a Democrat who has operated the jail for less than two years.

“Dallas County inmates are threatened with a death sentence because of Sheriff Valdez’s negligence,” he wrote.

Never mind that her predecessor, Jim Bowles, a Republican, was master of the county jail for two decades, a period pockmarked with similar accusations of improper care and conditions.

Never mind that the GOP-led Dallas County Commissioners Court was responsible for funding – make that underfunding – the jail for years.

Never mind that there’s a long history of studies and reports that accuse the county of failing to medicate prisoners suffering from severe mental illness.

In 2002, in fact, a series of high-profile suicides and other abusive behaviors by inmates caused a major scandal.

Mr. George’s newfound concerns are nothing more than the opening volley for the 2008 sheriff’s race. Not only is the new Democratic sheriff to be denounced for abominable jail conditions but also for spending more taxpayer dollars trying to fix them.

In fact, the county is being forced to spend more money on jail health care because of adverse publicity, pending lawsuits and a U.S. Justice Department civil rights investigation.
Let me remind you how all of this came to be.

In September 2004, The Dallas Morning News wrote about the case of James Mims, a mentally ill inmate, who was deprived of psychiatric medication for two months. Subsequently, water was turned off to his cell for two weeks, and he was discovered lying on the floor, semiconscious, incoherent and soaked in his own waste.

It was such an astounding case of neglect and possible abuse that county officials could no longer ignore the problem.

Pretty soon, lots of people were talking about a “health-care crisis” at the Dallas County Jail.

After Mr. Mims’ story came to light, county commissioners authorized a jail study to try to determine how bad the health conditions might be.

(Incidentally, that study was launched in December 2004, nearly a month before Sheriff Valdez took office.)

The resulting report, completed in February 2005, documented horrendous conditions in the jail that exacerbated inmates’ illnesses and posed life-threatening risks.

County officials tried to keep that study confidential, but The News got a copy of it and published the damning results.

“The 52-page report lays out sweeping problems with the jail’s health-care program, which worsen inmates’ health, pose risks to jail staff and the public, and result in easily avoided emergency room visits that cost county taxpayers,” according to the News story on Feb. 24, 2005.

Henceforth, The Blame Game got under way.

The University of Texas Medical Branch was faulted for doing a poor job of providing inmate medical care under a contract with the county, dating to 2002.

Eventually, the jail’s problems were laid at the feet of Dallas County commissioners, who historically have been reluctant to increase spending for basic health services for prisoners.

Following widespread media reports on the jail’s problems, the Justice Department stepped in last year to determine whether the conditions violated the prisoners’ rights. A formal inspection of the jail last February found widespread problems that dated to 2004.

Since that inspection, however, Parkland Memorial Hospital has taken over the jail’s medical care and doubled its health budget – from $14 million in fiscal 2006 to $28 million in fiscal 2007.

But the federal inspection made clear that it would take more time, more effort and more money to fix the Dallas County Jail.

That leaves some room for political fallout, I’m sure.

It would require countywide amnesia for Republicans to blame this whole jail mess on Sheriff Valdez.

It will take a strong commitment by county commissioners, medical staffers and the Sheriff’s Department to fix this problem. And it won’t happen overnight.

E-mail sjacobson@dallasnews.com

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