Thursday, March 16, 2006

Quit Reading those Jim O'Neill DMN Stories!

Sherry Jacobson:
Is jail papering over problems?
07:49 AM CST on Thursday, March 16, 2006
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.


David Finn

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dallas Jail Fail State Inspection for Third Straight Year: DMN

Day: Saturday
Head: County jail fails inspection again $5 million later, system still overcrowded, understaffed, state says

Dallas County's troubled jail system, already under federal investigation, got slapped with failing grades Friday from state inspectors for the third year in a row.
Despite $5 million in improvements over the past year, and repeated vows from county officials to fix things, the state cited some of the same jail deficiencies it had a year ago - and added new ones.

Inspectors from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards said that the jail still has overcrowded cells and insufficient staff, and that inmates continue to wait far too long for medical care.

They said that inmates still are not being tested for tuberculosis on or before their seventh day of incarceration, as required, and that inmates who remain in jail for more than a year do not get retested.

The TB issue was also cited a year ago and was one item county commissioners said at the time they could fix quickly.

"We had hoped they'd be in better shape this year than last, but it's clear they haven't completely resolved these issues," said Terry Julian, the jail commission's executive director. "We're going to have to see definite movement because they have already had some time to fix these problems."
He said it is rare for a county jail to be out of compliance for more than three years.

"I'm not surprised the problems are still there," said Laurance Priddy, a lawyer with Advocacy Inc., a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities. "They've done very little. The political will doesn't seem to be there. They really seem indifferent. They're either passing the buck or pointing the finger or doing nothing."

Failure to correct problems cited by state inspectors could result in the state forcing the county to transfer some inmates to other facilities, which could be costly for the county. But no one believes that is likely to happen.

The state on Friday also noted that a $2 million system to detect and eliminate smoke from cells that the county recently installed to address a prior violation doesn't work properly.

New problems

Among new violations cited by inspectors was that bailiffs at the Crowley Court House walk into courtroom holding cells without removing their weapons, as required.

State inspectors also warned the county that the violations could jeopardize variances the county has enjoyed that let it slide on some state jail requirements.

The jail system, which houses about 7,000 inmates, is among the 10 largest in the nation.

Commissioner John Wiley Price said he expected some of the violations to reappear because they require longer-term structural improvements already in the works.

"We're trying to correct years of benign neglect" at the jail, he said. But he expressed frustration with sanitation violations and the behavior of bailiffs. "There's no excuse for that sort of thing. We talk about these issues every month in our sheriff liaison meetings. They already have people assigned to deal with every one of these issues."

Sheriff Lupe Valdez viewed the state's tongue-lashing with mixed emotions.

"It's frustrating because I wish we were a lot further along on some of these issues," she said. "But we have done a lot already, even though some of it might not be visible to the public."

State inspectors said the Decker jail, an overflow facility the county reopened last summer, is not properly staffed. The state requires a ratio of one jail guard for every 48 inmates.

They said staffing plans for the entire jail system agreed on by the county and state are not being consistently followed.

Sheriff Valdez said that over the past year she has reduced staff vacancies from about 200 down to 70, but recruiting remains a challenge. "It's an issue for jails across the country," she said. "Other jails are even recruiting here, including Houston and Phoenix."

Sheriff Valdez said she increased her recruiting staff to speed background checks, and she held several job fairs.

Population control

In addition to staffing shortages, the state noted that the jail continues to house more inmates in cells and day rooms than they were approved to hold. A Dallas Morning News reporter who recently visited the jail saw inmates lying on mattresses out on the floor of some day rooms because all the cell bunks were occupied.

Sheriff Valdez said the jail has seen an increase in the number of female inmates and must increase the portion of the jail dedicated to them. She said the increase may be because more women are committing crimes or law enforcement agencies are cracking down more on such offenses as prostitution.

The jail also gets overwhelmed when law enforcement agencies crack down on outstanding warrants, Mr. Price said.

But state officials didn't sound sympathetic. When Mr. Price asked when the county should expect another inspection, Brandon Wood, the state commission's director of jail services, replied, "My recommendation is to fix these problems as quickly as possible.

"The overpopulation of cells could be corrected immediately in our opinion," he said. "If you need to contract out to house some inmates elsewhere, that's a viable option."

The county has plenty of extra room at its overflow Decker facility, since only four of its nine floors are in use. But county officials are reluctant to open a new floor unless necessary since it costs $1 million a month to keep each floor staffed.

Mr. Wood also said that current violations "are starting to spill over into other areas," and that variances the county now enjoys could be at risk if immediate improvements are not made.

Some improvements have been in the works since the last inspection. The county spent $2 million to fix a faulty intercom system that prevents two-way communication from cells to jail staff, a violation cited last year. The project is nearly completed.

In addition, the county was cited last year and again on Friday for overcrowded holding cells in the book-in area, which handles 350 to 400 new inmates a day. Sheriff's Deputy Chief Edgar McMillan Jr. said improvements to the book-in area have been designed and construction should begin in a few weeks.

The state also cited the county again for failing to provide prompt medical care to inmates - a problem that has led to numerous civil-rights lawsuits against the county and is the focus of an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.


Judge David Finn

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