What to Expect from DOJ Visit-DMN

Inquiry looming over jail Dallas County: Federal review of medical care could bring indictments
Byline: JAMES M. O’NEILL / The Dallas Morning News

The feds are swooping in.
When they soon start knocking on the doors of the Dallas County Jail, expect them to haul along a platoon of experts on medical care, mental illness and sanitation. Then, sometime next year, they’ll likely hand the county a laundry list of violations and recommended improvements that could be costly. And, while it’s rare, don’t rule out the possibility of criminal indictments against individuals.

In the past year, the county has been hit with a series of federal lawsuits over health care in the jail. It has been buffeted by an expert’s report that drew a scathing portrait of jail conditions. And it has endured a failed state inspection and repeated calls from advocates and medical experts for improving medical care.

Now the civil rights division of the federal Justice Department is launching its own investigation into conditions at the jail.

Experts on correctional health and officials at lockups across the country where investigations have occurred say Dallas should brace for an extensive federal review of the jail’s medical practices.

“They looked at our processes, the treatment we were providing, specific medical charts; it’s a pretty thorough look,” said Bill Powell, the criminal justice coordinator for Shelby County, Tenn., where the Justice Department investigated medical treatment at the county jail in 2000.

Mr. Powell said the department announced its investigation of the county’s jail in Memphis that August, spent several weeks on site and produced its report the following June. The county signed a settlement agreement with the Justice Department in August 2002 outlining 30 to 40 improvements it would make.

What to expect

Eric Holland, a Justice Department spokesman, said that when the agency investigates a jail, it generally interviews staff, inmates and community advocates. Justice investigators will review medical records and observe daily operations. And if the investigation produces enough evidence, the department could not only force the county to make changes, but also hand information over to the criminal division for indictment. Mr. Holland would not comment on the Dallas investigation.

In February, Dallas commissioners received a report from a correctional expert they hired to review the jail’s practices.

The report cited a litany of problems. Among them: Jail guards without medical training conduct medical screening as inmates check in, missing at least 35 percent of detainees with health problems; inmates with chronic physical or mental illness often go weeks or months without medication; the medical team is severely understaffed. The county jail system, the seventh largest in the nation, houses more than 7,000 inmates. Many have chronic health problems or suffer from mental illness.

‘Not surprised’

Advocates for the mentally ill are relieved to see federal involvement, even though county commissioners have increased spending on jail health this year and are planning improvements.

“I’m not surprised the feds decided to come in,” said Laurance Priddy of Advocacy Inc., an advocacy group for mentally ill inmates in Texas that filed a federal suit against the county a year ago on behalf of inmates. “The county really hasn’t done much since then. They haven’t responded to fix things.”

Mr. Priddy, who has been in contact with the Justice Department about its investigation, said the department has more powerful legal tools and clout, and will be able to extract information from the county about jail conditions more easily than attorneys representing inmates.

But he wants the improvements the Justice Department cites to be enforceable.

Often the Justice Department will file suit and sign a settlement agreement outlining needed reforms for a county under investigation. Such consent decrees include provisions for monitoring progress and can be enforced by court intervention. But the Justice Department also has closed investigations with memorandums of agreement, which do not have the same legal clout.

“We will need to be satisfied that whatever they order will be enforceable,” Mr. Priddy said. He said that for more than a decade, consensus has been reached a number of times with the county over improvements needed at the jail.

“But there was no enforceability, so nothing happened,” he said. “It’s important this time that the Justice Department agreement has enforcement teeth.”

If that doesn’t occur, he said, Advocacy Inc. will seek an enforceable remedy through its own pending federal suit.

Quick changes

Federal involvement has brought more speedy change in other parts of the country, from Los Angeles to New York.

Just as in Dallas, inmates at the Nassau County Jail in suburban Long Island, N.Y., were not receiving their medications and in some cases were not properly diagnosed as mentally ill during the initial booking process, said Steven Greenfield, executive director of the county’s Mental Health Association.

But after a federal investigation, “the county is certainly paying much more attention to it,” Mr. Greenfield said. “We saw improving conditions in the jail, though it’s still far from perfect.”

Dr. Marvin Southard, director of the Los Angeles County department of mental health, said a federal investigation into jail conditions there has helped shake free more local resources for people with mental illnesses.

Dr. Southard said the Los Angeles investigation, begun in the mid-1990s, turned into a long process in which the county has worked with panels of experts assigned by the Justice Department. The experts meet with local officials periodically to assess progress.

After an agreement is reached, the federal involvement doesn’t end, Mr. Powell said. Shelby County continues to gather data and submit reports to the Justice Department. And the department sends experts back to the jail twice a year to monitor improvements.

E-mail joneill@dallasnews.com

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