Fatal Phone Tree

Just try calling the Dallas County jail for info

The Dallas County sheriff makes people disappear right off the face of the earth, and you and I have no earthly way of finding out where they are or what has happened. It's like the damn desparecidos in Argentina 25 years ago.

County officials are pointing fingers at each other, blaming the mess on a new computer system. But the person responsible for holding prisoners is our new sheriff, Lupe Valdez.

She doesn't respond to media inquiries. Not mine, anyway. But here is the bottom line. It's her jail. It's her job. It's her responsibility to honor the right of habeas corpus and see to it that people don't disappear behind bars.

She's doing a lousy job.

Let me point out something else before we go on: The people with the most important need to know who's in jail are crime victims. You better believe a rape victim wants to know where that attacker is in the system every hour of every day. And victims have been totally cut off from the information they need by this mess.

Johnnie Miller wasn't a victim. He started trying last summer to contact a casual friend, Bruce Grimsley. He couldn't reach Grimsley by phone, so he dropped by his apartment.

"I just went over there, and he was never there," Miller told me.

Someone tipped Miller that Grimsley had been arrested and taken to the county jail, but Miller could get no one at the jail to confirm a thing. He challenged me to call the same number he had--the one you're supposed to be able to call to get inmate information from the jail.

This is exactly what I hear when I dial 214-761-9025, along with some of what I'm thinking while I listen: I call the "intake center" of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department.

A woman's voice says: "You have reached the Dallas County Sheriff's Department. If you need information regarding the Texas VINE system or are calling in response to a call from Texas VINE, press nine now. To continue in English, please hold. Pair of continue r in ess pan ole, mark a el noom roe you-know."

I'm going to assume that is a person of Anglo extraction attempting to speak Spanish. I'm going to hope it won't happen again.Ah, here she is, back again, this time in her mother tongue: "For information on whether a person is in jail or the status of an inmate, press two now."

I press. Boink. I wait."To find out if someone is being held in a Dallas County jail, press one now."

Well, it seems to me we have already covered this ground, and the choice was "press two." But I'm game. I press one this time. Boink."To find out if someone is being held in a Dallas County jail..."

Oh, man, now you're playing me. But I'm going to stay cool. You can't crack me that easy."...you can be connected with the intake center of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department..."

I thought that was what I was calling in the first place!"...or you may use an automated system, the Texas VINE system. Because of high call volumes, it is typically quicker to use Texas VINE. This system can provide information in Spanish, if needed."

I doubt it."To be connected to Texas VINE, you may press one now."

Gee. This is a classic. Boink!

"Please hold. Your call is being transferred."

I wait."To continue in English, press one."

Well, let me think about that one. You know, I started in English, and I just think I ought to dance with the one that brung me. Plus, if I don't, you're going to offer me another pair of continue R's. BOINK!"Welcome to the statewide VINE service. You can call this service at any time to get up-to-date information on an offender's custody status, charges and upcoming court events. If you need jail information such as operating procedures and visiting hours, you will need to call the jail directly. If you need to search for information about an offender in a county jail, press one."

This better work. That's all I can say. Me and "Press One," we been around the block one too many times on this already. This had better work! Boink.

"If you know the offender's identification number, press one."

Well, I think that's a good thing. I do know his number. This is a step ahead. What did she say to press? I can't...Oh, no! I have to remember. If I make a mistake, she'll throw me back in the briar patch. It was one, right? Boink."Using your telephone key pad, please enter the offender number followed by the pound sign."

I can do that."Use the one key for the letters Q and Z."

Why? Why not just use Q and Z? Hey, look at that! There's no Q or Z on my phone. I never noticed that. I am really losing my concentration here. If I take too long, she'll bounce me. Must focus! Must focus!Boink boink boink boink.

Wait. There's more. Boink boink boink.

One more boink. Got it! Did it! I'm there! I beat her! She has to talk to me now!"You entered 05080498. If that's correct, press one."

Of course it's correct. You know it's correct! Don't mess with me now! Boink."This offender's custody status was last reported to us by Dallas County. We are not currently receiving status information from this agency. If you are a registered victim, we will notify you by phone once this situation has been resolved.

"In the meantime, for current status information on this offender, you can call Dallas County. The telephone number for this facility is 214-761-9025. To hear this information again, press the pound sign."

I could cry. Boink. I am a shattered person."You have reached the Dallas County Sheriff's Department..."

Ohhh, no. It's the bad-Spanish lady again. She's going to make me do it all over again from the beginning. I can't believe it. I must fight back an impulse to butt my forehead into my steel filing cabinet.Finally, she says, "To be transferred to the intake section [where I wanted to go in the first place], press two now."

Boink."Please hold. Your call is being transferred."

I kid you not. The phone rings for an hour and a half. I put it on speaker phone and go get coffee. I try to see if I can do a little waltz step to it. I draw circles and X's for each ring on an entire sheet of paper. I get two pencils and muss up my hair and put my glasses on upside down and do an orchestra conductor thing. It never answers.

And then I realize. This is defeat. The bad-Spanish lady has put me down for the count. She wins. I lose. Wow. I know how John Kerry must feel.

Don Peritz, a spokesman for the sheriff, confirms that the end of the phone tree journey, for most people, is a never-ending ring tone. "It puts you into a call queue. Your call is answered in the order it was received," he tells me.

"The queue holds 72 callers at a time. If you were the 73rd or higher caller, basically the phone just rings. We are averaging 700 calls a day, and there's two clerks to answer those calls."

Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell (District 2, the northeastern region of the county) met me for an early-morning coffee and gave me a detailed description of the new computer system. He and court administrator Allen Clemson showed me working terminals where a mouse click calls up deep files on anybody who is in county custody.

They conceded that the system isn't spitting out information properly to the Texas VINE system, which is actually a national data bank in Tennessee run by a private contractor.

But they said several dozen computer terminals are up and running within the sheriff's department and are capable of doing what the one they showed me could do.

I also talked about all of this with Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price (District 3 in southern and southeastern Dallas County), who has been a vocal critic of Cantrell's new computer project. Price said it would be absolutely wrong to blame any of this mess on the sheriff, who was only recently elected and was blindsided, he says, by the computer mess when she took office.

I don't know. Cantrell says that when the new system is up and running, 90 to 100 clerks within the sheriff's department will no longer have jobs. He suggests that somebody may be trying to ward off that day by deliberately jacking with the implementation of the new system.

The Texas VINE system is overseen by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott primarily to keep crime victims informed about the accused or convicted offenders in their cases. A spokesman for Abbott told me the attorney general's office was unaware that Dallas County data was not getting into the VINE system until I called last week and asked questions.

"We are setting up a meeting as expeditiously as possible to fix the problem," said Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for Abbott (and a former Dallas TV reporter). Strickland gave me the impression the attorney general's office considers this an emergency, especially as it affects crime victims.

Yeah. So, until it gets fixed, why does the sheriff have only two people answering the phone for jail information? Why not 10 people? She doesn't think this is an emergency, I guess.

I think she's getting a big free ride because she's the first Latina sheriff and a Democrat and a woman. Man, I hate to think what they'd be doing to her predecessor, Jim Bowles, if this was his watch. They'd have that good ol' boy on the barbecue spit.

Oh, I forgot. They already did that.

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