We Hate Your Guts

What a disturbing new lawsuit says about the county jail

Jerry Wayne Mooney sat and shivered in the Dallas County jail. He was a grotesque sight: Several gunshot wounds, exchanged in a bizarre shootout with Irving police more than a year earlier, had shredded his abdominal muscles, causing his guts to push into a bulging, wrinkled sac of pink and gray skin that flopped painfully over his waist. To the left of his ballooning belly, the 31-year-old clutched a leaking colostomy bag that his nurses often neglected to change for days.

A Mexican inmate, struck by the man's painful circumstances, weaved a support garment out of a prison bed sheet to hold Mooney's protruding intestines and stomach. Earlier, Mooney had asked the medical staff for an abdominal support, but they ignored him. The inmate's solution offered immediate relief: Mooney no longer had to hoist his swollen gut every time he stood up and walked. But the relief didn't last long.

Like a punctured water balloon, his colostomy bag exploded, soiling his sheet and prison uniform.

Stomach-turning: A lack of treatment at the Dallas County jail helped create Jerry Wayne Mooney's extreme hernia.
Stomach-turning: A lack of treatment at the Dallas County jail helped create Jerry Wayne Mooney's extreme hernia.

Last Tuesday, Mooney filed a federal lawsuit against the Dallas County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail system, and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB), the jail's medical provider, alleging a pattern of neglect and incompetence that echoes not only previous complaints but a blistering independent report on the jail that the county has gone to federal court to suppress.

Filed by attorney David Davis, this latest complaint alleges that the jail's medical staff unnecessarily placed Mooney, who is bipolar, in solitary confinement for 62 days, where his medical needs were easy to ignore, and failed to help him change his rotting bandages and provide new colostomy bags. Jail and medical officials refused to comment on the suit.

On October 21, 2002, Mooney found himself in a tense standoff with Irving police. Although his family says he has no history of violence, Mooney might have been suffering a manic episode. He wouldn't allow officers to arrest him; gunfire was exchanged and police fired around 10 shots at him, striking his torso and both legs. One officer was wounded, though not seriously.

Mooney was originally charged with attempted capital murder. The prosecution, however, delayed the trial and ultimately reduced the charge to aggravated assault on a peace officer. Mooney, now 33, pleaded guilty to that offense on Monday and awaits sentencing.

On the night of the shootout, Mooney was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital and later underwent stomach surgery, a colostomy and skin graft.

After he was released from the hospital about a month later, he was sent to the county jail. In his discharge instructions, Mooney's physician wrote that the jail nurse needed to help him change his colostomy bag. The doctor scheduled a follow-up appointment, but Mooney didn't make it. That's because the medical staff had him in solitary confinement for two months.

Mooney's family was told that he was placed in isolation for his own protection. Housed in the general population, he'd be an easy target for violent inmates. But the staff didn't have Mooney's well-being in mind, the lawsuit alleges. His mother, Deanna, says that when her son first arrived at his cell, the toilet was clogged with the previous occupant's feces. Mooney was told if he wanted a clean cell, he'd have to do it himself. Gloves were not provided.

Also around this time, Mooney developed a staph infection that featured copious amounts of yellow and green pus oozing through his bandages. Meanwhile, his abdominal hernia began to grow after the jail staff failed to bring him to a follow-up appointment at Parkland.

After two months in solitary confinement, the staff apparently believed Mooney could now protect himself and placed him in general population. He didn't make a good first impression. His colostomy bag was leaking all over him, and he was bleeding through his soggy bandages. Somehow, though, his fellow inmates provided him with a new, unsoiled prison uniform.

"You know who have been the very best to him?" his mother says. "The other inmates."

According to Mooney's family, the medical staff also neglected to provide him with his psychiatric medication. The guards threatened to send him back to solitary if he complained about his medical treatment, family members say. The jail's worst moment, however, came when officials failed to deliver him to a scheduled operation that would have repaired his extreme hernia and reversed his colostomy. A month before the 2004 surgery appointment, Mooney was accidentally released from jail. Three days later, jail officials realized their error and issued a warrant for his arrest. When Mooney was re-booked, a clerk flubbed his birth date and gave him a new booking number. Mooney's family believes that because his data had been changed, information that would have reminded the jail that Mooney had an operation scheduled never popped up on the computer screen.

Sergeant Gregory Artesi, a jail spokesman, refused to comment on any aspect of the lawsuit. He did say that inmates are sometimes released from the jail prematurely. "Accidents happen and mistakes are made, and we made every effort to rectify it."

None of this is reassuring to Mooney's family. Doctors at Parkland have told them that it may be too late to repair his distended abdomen, which continues to expand. The time to do it was a year ago.

Mooney's lawsuit follows several other legal challenges that echo the same theme of indifference to the jail's sickest inmates. The county is defending itself from another lawsuit filed by representatives of a gravely ill inmate whose water was turned off in his cell for 13 days, supposedly because he was flooding it. The sheriff's department's own internal investigation also blithely concludes that the inmate, James Mims, "slipped thru the cracks." The inmate suffered renal failure and remains gravely ill. The investigation placed more of the blame on the jail's psychiatric staff, which is managed by an outside medical provider, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

That hospital has its own set of problems. An independent report, issued by Health Management Associates, a private consulting firm, has lambasted the quality of care administered by UTMB at the Dallas County Jail. Written by the medical director of the Cook County Jail in Chicago, the report referred to certain health-care practices at the jail as "dangerous," employed the phrase "systemic incompetence" and documented several cases in which the staff ignored the needs of chronically ill inmates for weeks at a time.

Last week, though, the county enlisted high-priced legal help to argue that the report, whose findings no one seems to dispute, is a privileged document and should not be used against them in the Mims lawsuit.

For nearly three years now, Mooney's family has visited him as often as the jail allows and has battled to get his basic needs met. They can't keep it together much longer.

"It just rips my heart out," says a weeping Deanna Mooney. "He's deteriorating right in front of them. I don't know how they sleep at night. They wouldn't treat animals like this." --Matt Pulle

Observer Honored

Dallas Observer staff writer Sarah Hepolarecently won a prestigious University of Missouri Lifestyle Journalism Award for "Think Pink," an October 9, 2003, cover story about Mary Kay Cosmetics' attempts to reach a new generation of women. The judges for the Fashion & Design category wrote, "Oh no, not another Mary Kay story. That's what we thought as we began judging this piece, but as we read we were engaged with the style (not too confrontational, but hard-hitting) and enamored with all the characters and ideas. Hepola has taken a story many people have done and made it ring..." Hepola is leaving the Observer to continue her writing career in New York.

In other contest news, Observer staff writer Mark Stuertzwas named a finalist in the James Beard Journalism Awards for his April 15, 2004, feature story on the Texas beef industry, "How Now Mad Cow." Stuertz is a past winner in the James Beard contest, the premier national competition for food writers. Stuertz was also named a finalist in the Association of Food Journalists contest for the same story.

The Observer fared well in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies awards in June. Former Observerassociate editor Eric Celeste, now with Southwest Airlines' Spirit Magazine, took first place in the media reporting category for "At the Ripping Point," his cover story about dismal morale at The Dallas Morning News. Intern Andrea Grimes took third place in the arts feature category for "Paint by Numbers," her profile of 15-year-old artist prodigy Olivia Bennett, and Mark Stuertz received an honorable mention in food writing for a collection of his restaurant reviews.

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