Justice Delayed

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

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.

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