Thursday, June 02, 2005

Dallas County Jail-Pathetic

Exclusive: Glitches at county jail swallowed up inmates
Officials say they did their best to release them on time


10:04 PM CDT on Saturday, May 28, 2005


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


It was as if Scott Williams had vanished into a black hole.


MONA REEDER/DMN
Scott Williams was arrested on a DWI charge during the jail's most chaotic week. He hoped to be out the next day, but, denied his medications, he says he endured "a week of hell." Shortly after his rush-hour fender-bender on Central Expressway, he made a cellphone call from the back of a police car. In a voice laced with agitation, he told his partner, Rodney Russell, that he had been drinking, that he had rear-ended a Jeep, and that he was headed to the Dallas County Jail on a DWI charge.

Mr. Williams thought he would quickly be released – as soon as Mr. Russell could learn from the jail how much bail to post.

But Mr. Williams' arrest occurred on Friday, Feb. 4, during the most chaotic week the Dallas jail has likely ever seen.

"I expected to be out the next day, for sure," Mr. Williams said. "But it turned into a week of hell."

Just days before his arrest, on Jan. 31, the county had launched a new computer system for the jail. The Adult Information System, or AIS, which has cost $3 million in federal grant money, was designed to make book-in and law enforcement work more efficient. Someday it might do that.

Instead, the system's launch caused a staggering backlog of defendants waiting for book-in the week of Mr. Williams' arrest. In addition, lists of new inmates produced by the county's old mainframe could no longer be produced, wreaking havoc with court officials' ability to know who was in jail and to set inmates' court dates.

Jail clerks – some poorly trained – also had trouble with the new system.

The passel of problems caused scores of people, including Mr. Williams, to languish in the jail for weeks and months too long.

Through interviews with court officials, defendants and others, and after reviewing data in the new system and in court documents, The Dallas Morning News has identified at least 40 cases in which defendants were imprisoned too long after the launch of AIS. Some officials say the total number is far higher.

"These cases are just a small representation of the chaos we experienced," District Court Judge Vic Cunningham said.

In the four months since the crisis began, the county has never tried to determine how many people were affected. As a result, some who might have been located and released remained imprisoned far too long.

For instance, one inmate was booked in Feb. 8, but the courts learned of him only when he managed to get a message to a judge 56 days later. In many cases, court officials discovered someone's imprisonment only because family members alerted them.

"It comes down to a tremendous failure by the county. It's outrageous," said Michael Linz of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. "But it's not unusual for the county to think of these folks as just people in jail – the weak and powerless – and to ignore them."

Mr. Linz said those held too long could have the basis for a civil rights lawsuit against the county.

"Ordinarily, the government's not permitted to hold you without cause," he said. "Dallas has been notoriously deficient in taking care of basic human liberties."

To date, Dallas County has no idea whether people who should have been released are still in the jail. One court accidentally discovered a defendant still imprisoned as recently as May 12 even though it had told the jail to release him 34 days earlier. The court learned he was still imprisoned only when he failed to show up for a court appointment, and his attorney called his family to ask why. They said he was still in jail.

News analysis
To gauge the extent of the problem, The News looked at the cases of 50 defendants booked in at the jail over about four hours on the evening of Feb. 1. At least one in seven appears to have been imprisoned too long.

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"It is unimaginable that people could languish for days and weeks beyond their release date. It's outrageous," former county criminal court judge David Finn said.

The sweeping problems affected all kinds of people. Some had long criminal records, others had no prior offenses. Some are homeless, and some hold prestigious white-collar jobs.

Many were locked away for minor infractions, and for some, charges were dropped. One woman had her charges dismissed by a grand jury on Feb. 22, but wasn't released until 36 days later – only after she got word to her lawyer.

Defense lawyers were taken by surprise by the computer problems, saying they had come to trust the old system and never felt a need to check if their clients were actually released on time.

"Things came to a standstill. We couldn't get our clients brought down to court because the jail couldn't find them," said Kenda Culpepper, who sits on the board of the Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

When Ms. Culpepper heard one of her clients was held a month too long, she called the court and got him released.

"What about the people stuck in there who didn't have a lawyer to advocate for them?" she said. "People without access to family or a lawyer were just stuck. Their rights were violated. It's unforgivable.

"There was a problem with the whole thing that the county has to acknowledge. For them not to – that's pure arrogance."

County Commissioner Mike Cantrell, who spearheaded the project, said AIS is solid and functions as intended. The big problem occurred when mainframe reports for the courts were cut off.

"There were issues with the old mainframe when it started, there are issues with this new system, and there will be issues with whatever replaces AIS in the future," he said. "There are always going to be instances that pop up out of the norm."

He said his responsibility is to Dallas County taxpayers and indicated he isn't inclined to issue an apology to those held too long.

"I don't want to be callous," he said. "But something like that has to go through the district attorney's office."

Instead of conducting an audit to discover how many people were held too long, Mr. Cantrell and others said they have focused on fixing the immediate problems.

'A perfect storm'
The same week the computer problems started, commissioners received a scathing report on health care in the jail. It noted that many inmates with physical and mental illnesses were not receiving their prescribed medication.

Mr. Finn said the jail's poor health care, compounded by the computer problems, created "a perfect storm."

"It puts the mentally ill in a bad position," he said. "They feel absolutely lost in the jail, and that's scary." He said drugs for mental illness can cause serious side effects when suddenly withdrawn.

The confluence of computer problems and health care woes proved toxic for Scott Williams.

Mr. Williams has fought depression and anxiety for years. His prescription medications have not always worked, and doctors have had to tinker with the mix. In August, he spiraled downward, so Mr. Russell got him into a treatment program. Doctors finally hit on a combination of four drugs that seemed to stabilize him.

But early this year, a close friend died. And on the night of Feb. 4, Mr. Williams, who has had a drinking problem since experiencing childhood sexual abuse, bought some alcohol. He took it to his apartment on Turtle Creek Boulevard and had a few drinks. When Mr. Russell came home and took a nap, Mr. Williams decided to go get new water for his tropical fish tank. He took Mr. Russell's car, and rammed the Jeep.

Mr. Williams, 36, said that when he arrived at the jail, he told the staff and the nurse on duty about his medications.

He was placed in a holding cell designed for 63 people but which at that point was crammed with several hundred. "People were literally laying on top of each other," he wrote after being released.

He remained there Friday night, Saturday and into Sunday, expecting to be bailed out. He refused to eat the moldy baloney sandwiches the jail gave out, and a guard put him on suicide watch.

Early on Monday, Feb. 7, he was taken to a suicide cell, stripped naked and left on the floor, freezing and shaking. He said he could already feel withdrawal symptoms from the lack of medication.

Later that morning, after a doctor lifted the suicide watch, Mr. Williams was transferred to a cell he said was strewn with glass, while the floor, sink and toilet were smeared with feces. He started to yell at the guards to move him. "I needed my medication and was going hysterical in a world of hell," he wrote later.

Monday night, he said, he started to shake uncontrollably.

By Wednesday, he was wondering if he had been abandoned.

Defending AIS
Mr. Cantrell defends the work of InfoIntegration, the fledgling company that created AIS. Asked if anything should have been handled differently, he said, "Nothing on the development side."

Mr. Cantrell blames the bulk of problems on two things. There were clerical errors among jail staff. And Atos Origin, the company that has a five-year, $53 million contract to handle the county's old mainframe, failed to ready the old system to collect data from AIS so it could still produce key reports for the courts.

When that occurred, officials decided it would be faster to rebuild the reports using AIS rather than adjusting the mainframe. Mr. Cantrell said InfoIntegration had to shift key resources away from fine-tuning AIS to develop the court reports through the new system.

Yet court officials say the reports produced by AIS are inaccurate. Numerous defendants were left off the lists – forcing them to remain imprisoned until they were discovered days or weeks later, often by chance.

On March 1, Tonya Brenneman, president of InfoIntegration, told commissioners it would take two more weeks to clear up major issues afflicting the system. That day, Mr. Cantrell rejected suggestions to hire a larger computer firm to help.

He says the county did not have money to hire another company because the project was funded strictly with federal grant dollars, and they were allocated for development of the system. "Another company couldn't do anything more than InfoIntegration because of the limited amount of money available," he said.

But 12 weeks after Ms. Brenneman's assurances, serious problems persist. As recently as May 17, Robert Clines, the county's new technology director, said dozens of problems with the court reports are still "significantly impacting those courts."

Judge Cunningham said the daily reports listing new defendants used to be seven pages long when produced by the old system. Reports now are only four pages – a signal that people are missing from the lists.

"It's getting better," he said, "but there's still a long way to go."

A recent report by Mr. Clines indicates that blame should be spread among Atos for cutting off the court reports, the county for providing scant oversight, and InfoIntegration for failing to properly test the system.

Stacks of case folders continue to pile up on court clerks' desks because the information they need to assign court dates or issue warrants is missing from AIS.

Court staffers have turned to satire to express their frustration, circulating a "Top 10" list of what the initials "AIS" really stand for. One example: "Anyone Incarcerated Stays."

Jail staffers complained that AIS would assign the same book-in number to multiple defendants, and list inmates in one cell when they were in another.

And the system's sluggish performance early on frustrated clerks during book-in. In some cases, the same charge is listed for a defendant five or six times, a sign of an impatient clerk repeatedly hitting the "enter" button.

As a result, the AIS system indicates there are 3,000 more inmates in the jail than there really are, said Sgt. Don Peritz, the Sheriff's Department spokesman.

"Our people are understaffed and overworked to the point of burnout," Sgt. Peritz said. He said Sheriff Lupe Valdez has assigned a full-time deputy to manually check the status of inmates to reduce the chance that people are imprisoned for too long.

Forgotten in system
While Scott Williams was deteriorating in jail, Rodney Russell, his partner, grew anxious on the outside.

On Saturday, the day after Mr. Williams' arrest, Mr. Russell approached the jail's information desk to ask about Mr. Williams' status. A jail employee couldn't find him in the system. "They had no clue whether he was even booked in," Mr. Russell said.

Mr. Russell returned on Sunday and Monday, with the same results. On Tuesday and Wednesday, officials were able to locate Mr. Williams in the system, but Mr. Russell said they gave conflicting information about what the bond would cost.

On Wednesday, Mr. Russell was able to see Mr. Williams in the jail. The visit only confirmed his worst fears – Mr. Williams clearly was not taking any medication.

"He was dazed and confused. He told me he hadn't slept since Friday," Mr. Russell said.

On Thursday morning, because of medical staff intervention, guards brought Mr. Williams to court. Given his condition, County Criminal Court Judge Lisa Fox issued a personal recognizance bond so he could be released immediately. Even so, he remained in jail.

On Friday morning, Dr. Gary Neller, a jail psychiatrist, saw Mr. Williams for a second time. "Off all four medications since being locked up," he wrote in Mr. Williams' medical file. "[Patient] doesn't recognize me as his doctor and refuses all jail medication."

Mr. Williams was finally released that Friday.

He said he still has nightmares about the experience. "I felt like a sick animal that had been kicked to the side of the road," he said.

For Mr. Russell, his partner's release provided only fleeting relief. "This experience has set us back with his meds – everything we had just accomplished," Mr. Russell said.

He is still amazed his partner was unnecessarily imprisoned for a week. "We couldn't believe this was happening in a big city like Dallas," Mr. Russell said.

"Maybe a one-horse town. But Dallas?"

E-mail joneill@dallasnews.com

SERVING THEIR TIME, AND THEN SOME

Here are case studies of some of the people imprisoned in the Dallas County Jail too long:

A 23-year-old man was arrested Feb. 6 on charges of possession of a prohibited weapon and using a false identity. He pleaded guilty and received probation Feb. 11 to both charges. But he was not released. When he missed a probation meeting, a warrant was issued for his arrest. That's how the court discovered he was still imprisoned on April 15, more than two months later. Days stuck: 64

A 25-year-old man was arrested March 11 and charged with unlawful use of a vehicle, his sister's. The case was never set for a grand jury. On April 13, a court official told the defendant's attorney that the case had been withdrawn March 16 but that he was still in jail on a separate theft charge. Further research revealed the charge was actually for another defendant, a woman. The two had been given the same book-in number. The defendant was released April 13. Days stuck: 28.

A 53-year-old man was arrested Dec. 10 on a theft charge. He pleaded guilty and was to serve a term ending April 10. But he wasn't released. Finally, after his daughter called the court, he was freed – 16 days late. But his daughter's efforts could not get him out in time to keep him from catching a painful staph infection. "I got these boils on my skin," he said. "And it hurts. It's excruciating." Days stuck: 16.

A 42-year-old man was arrested March 15 by the Union Pacific Railroad and charged with interference with railroad property. But the case was never filed. He should have been released by March 21, but he never appeared on court lists. From jail, he sent a message to a judge April 10. The court ordered him released. He was freed April 15. Days stuck: 26.

A 24-year-old man was arrested Feb. 18 on a marijuana possession charge. He pleaded guilty, and his sentence should have ended March 4. The court first sent the jail a notice about his release date on Feb. 22. He was freed April 27. Days stuck: 54.

A 32-year-old man was arrested Feb. 8 on charges of credit card abuse and theft. Courts did not know he was in jail until April 5, when he got a note to a judge. He was released the next day. In an e-mail obtained by The News. Criminal District Court Judge John Creuzot wrote to county officials, "We did not know of his existence until he wrote me." On April 13, cases were disposed of, and hecontinued on probation. Days stuck: about two months.

A 22-year-old man was arrested Feb. 14 on a criminal mischief charge. He pleaded guilty, and his sentence was to end March 17. He was freed April 7. Days stuck: 21.

A 28-year-old man was arrested Feb. 26 on charges of theft and failure to identify himself. He did not appear on the court's daily jail chain list until April 1 on one charge and April 14 in a second court on the other. He pleaded guilty to both charges, and his sentence, running concurrently, should have ended March 12. He was released April 14, the date of his first court appearance on the second charge. Days stuck: 33.

A 30-year-old man was arrested Feb. 11 on a marijuana possession charge. He was not called to court until April 14. His sentence, running from his book-in date, should have ended March 2. He was released April 18. Days stuck: 43.

A 17-year-old woman was arrested March 31 on a theft charge. Charges were not filed within three days, so she should have been released by April 5. She was released April 23. Days stuck: 18.

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