Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Pulle & Dallas Observer Continue to Hammer Jail

Justice Delayed
A woman's story of life behind bars might be of interest to federal investigators

Published: Thursday, December 15, 2005

Rhenia Chavers suffered strokes after being denied medicine at Dallas County's jail.

For the crime of driving with a suspended license, Rhenia Chavers lost the ability to walk. She's usually confined to a wheelchair, although on a good day she can navigate her mother's apartment with a cane. Nine months ago, Chavers' misdemeanor offense led her to spend six days at the Dallas County jail, where she begged for her daily lupus medication before suffering a series of strokes.
When the U.S. Justice Department begins its investigation of the county's Lew Sterrett Justice Center, it could do worse than talk to Chavers. On March 19, the 45-year-old Carrollton resident turned herself in at the Sheriff's Department after learning that there was a warrant for her arrest for driving with a suspended license. She expected to pay a fine and be done with it. But Chavers says that when no judge could see her late on a Friday afternoon, she was processed and sent to jail. Although she brought her daily lupus medication Coumadin with her, medical staff confiscated it at intake and told her it would be returned to her at the infirmary. On her second day at the jail, she went to the infirmary and asked for her medication. They said her name was "not on the list."

Chavers had been on her medication daily since 2002 when she first contracted lupus. Now behind bars, she pleaded with a nurse at the infirmary. "I can't miss my medication," she said. "'That's what everybody says,'" she recalls being told.

During her six days behind bars, Chavers never received her medication. At night, Chavers struggled to sleep as others reminded her that she was hardly the only neglected inmate.

"It was like a snake pit in there," she says. "My goodness, you had inmates pleading and begging, trying to get their medication. They were banging on their cell door, pushing on the intercom and yelling at every guard that walked by."

Chavers' son Rasheed called the sheriff's office to inquire about his mother. "They couldn't find her in the system," he says. "Then when they did find her, they told me she should have been released."

Last February, a few weeks before Chavers was incarcerated, the jail debuted a new computer tracking system. Through user error and software malfunctions, the program was a disaster. Inmates languished in jail for weeks after they should have been released. The sheriff's office declined to talk about Chavers' plight, so it's not clear if she was another victim of the county's inept tracking system, but her stay coincides with the time when the program began to malfunction.

When Chavers finally saw a judge six days after she turned herself in, he released her. She returned home and immediately took her medication, but it was too late. She felt light-headed and had a stinging headache. The next day she saw her doctor, who told her she had suffered a mild stroke. Soon after, she had another stroke that nearly immobilized her left leg and arm while damaging her vision and memory. For nearly six months, she stayed at the Senior Health Care and Rehabilitation Center in Denton where she went through extensive physical therapy. Now she's living with her 71-year-old mom in a Denton apartment. Although she can't walk unassisted and has lost the use of her left hand, she hopes that with further physical therapy she'll make a full recovery. A year ago, she had a good job with FEMA; now she can't work, and her son is not sure how they'll pay for college tuition. But his mother is his first concern.

"She's very independent, always on the go, and to see this happen, it's been very hard," Rasheed Chavers says .

If cases like Chavers popped up only occasionally, it would still expose a jail in need of reform. In fact, Chavers' plight is a recurring tale. For years, inmates have suffered and been left to die at the Dallas County jail after being denied medical treatment and medication. The jail's medical staff, from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, claims that the county has not listened to their pleas to fund more positions. But the county and the Sheriff's Department lob the blame back at UTMB, claiming that the medical school was not ready for the job of providing care at a jail like Dallas'.

Last year, County Judge Margaret Keliher commissioned an outside consultant to study the facility. Characterizing the jail's medical care of chronically ill inmates as "poor to non-existent," the consultant reported on several inmates who became gravely ill or even died after their illnesses went untreated.

Earlier this fall, the commissioners court voted to fund a budget that will pay for up to 70 new jailers. But in the wake of the consultant's report and several lawsuits against the jail, the U.S. Justice Department notified the county last month that it would be investigating the medical care, mental health care and sanitation at the jail. Immediately, county officials, including Keliher and Sheriff Lupe Valdez, put their best possible spin on the surprise announcement, claiming the federal probe will give the facility a clean bill of health. But while county officials say they plan to cooperate fully with investigators, the county's outside defense counsel, Figari & Davenport, continues to take an opposite tack, arguing to suppress evidence in a lawsuit filed by the family of James Mims, a mentally ill inmate who suffered renal failure last year after guards turned off the water in his cell.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Valdez says that she hopes the investigation will validate some of the changes she's enacted in her first year in office. Unlike Valdez, the jail's medical director, Stephen Bowers, gave a far graver portrayal of the facility in deposition for the Mims case, according to one his lawyers, David Finn. "He said hardly anything has changed. It's still awful. 'Life-threatening' was the words he used." Rhenia Chavers wouldn't disagree.

Judge David Finn

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

What to Expect from DOJ Visit-DMN

Day: Sunday
Head: Inquiry looming over jail Dallas County: Federal review of medical care could bring indictments

Text: 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.


Judge David Finn

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