The Disappeared

Got a missing relative? Maybe you should look in the jail--and good luck with that.

By now, the sad story of Walter Mann is well-known. The 69-year-old, schizophrenic and homeless, was held in a Dallas County jail for more than a year for not paying a $50 fine. During his 15 months behind bars, he never saw a lawyer or had a visitor. Each time he was called to appear in court, his case was postponed.

When Mann's cellmate asked him what he was in for, he explained that he had been in a fight with his 13-year-old son. As a result, the boy had been sent to a boot-camp-style detention center for a month, for which Mann was fined $50 (compensation to the county for housing the boy). When Mann failed to pay the fine or show up for a subsequent July 2004 hearing, a judge issued an order to put him in jail and "bring him immediately before a judge...on the next work day." For some reason, that never happened. Had it not been for Mann's cellmate, who brought his case to the attention of a public defender, the old man would probably still be in the geriatric ward of the George Allen Detention Center.

The story is hardly surprising to anyone who has followed Dallas' chronically mismanaged jail system. Former inmates have told stories of feces smeared on walls and drinking fountains. Others have claimed the jail ignored their medical needs, including the family of one inmate who died of congestive heart failure, another who nearly went blind in one eye after an inmate hit him and another who was told he would lose his thumb because the jail had delayed treatment on an infection that had festered so long the bone had broken the skin and turned black.

For the mentally ill in particular, Dallas' jail system is not a safe place, and it's no wonder people like Mann fall through the cracks. One mentally ill inmate nearly died a year and a half ago after the water to his cell was turned off for two weeks. At least two others since 2002 have killed themselves--one with the cord to a pay phone--after jail staff failed to place them on suicide watch or give them psychiatric medication, federal lawsuits allege. And last February, 36-year-old Scott Williams was lost in the jail's system for four days after being arrested for drunk driving. Denied medication for depression and anxiety, Williams became distraught and was moved to a suicide cell, where he stayed for 12 hours, naked, lying on the floor without a blanket, trying to avoid shards of shattered glass. "I was in hell, buddy," Williams told the Dallas Observer in September.

Managing the jail, which consists of five buildings spread out over two blocks in downtown Dallas, has bedeviled the county sheriff's office for more than a decade. The jail has a population of nearly 8,000 people, with a daily turnover of 250 to 500. "It's a small city," explains Sergeant Don Peritz, the spokesman for the Dallas County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail. When Sheriff Lupe Valdez was elected last January, many hoped she would clean up the mess the jail had become. While she has made some progress--the Dallas County Commissioners Court gave her 33 new guard positions in September and granted a 10 percent pay raise to jailers, deputies and constables--the case of Walter Mann shows how much work she has left to do.

"The question is how many more people are over there just like him," says Brad Lollar, Dallas County's chief public defender. "It happens more often than you think. I mean, once is too much, but this kind of stuff happens all the time."

It was happening "all the time" last January, when glitches in a new computer system failed to keep tabs on inmates. At least 40 defendants were imprisoned for too long, according to The Dallas Morning News. In one case, an inmate was booked February 8 but remained unknown to the court until he managed to get a message to a judge 56 days later.

"It was an unbelievable screwup," says criminal defense attorney Peter Lesser, who said he went to the jail last January to visit a client and was told they couldn't find the man in the system. "Short of going cell-to-cell shouting, 'Johnny John, are you in here? Johnny John, are you in here? Where are you, Johnny John?' they didn't know where he was. It was a true screwup of massive proportions."

Lesser realized the only way he was going to find his client was through the man's wife. So he called her and said, "The next time your husband calls, ask him where he is." She did, and when Lesser returned to the jail he was able to find his client.

Now that most of the kinks have been worked out of the new computer program, inmates don't get lost the way they did last January and February, Peritz says. But someone like Mann, who is mentally ill, could languish in jail, court and jail officials acknowledge. "The whole jail is paper-driven. We need a piece of paper to put you in jail, and we need a piece of paper to get you out. I don't want to point fingers, but we never got the order from the court to release him," Peritz says. "You've got humans involved all around the courts. If somebody drops the ball, this is what happens."

When Mann was released in December he promptly disappeared. He turned up shortly afterward at a church in Oak Cliff, where a newspaper reporter found him dressed in dirty jeans and a soiled Cowboys sweatshirt. He was glad to be out of jail, he said, even though his family had moved to Michigan without him. Until a few days ago, when Mann left for Michigan for a funeral, he was sleeping in the cab of a truck parked near the church.

Ever since Mann's story hit the news, his attorney, David Finn, says he's been inundated with calls from people with similar stories. "It appears to be an ongoing, systematic problem. Every time the proverbial stuff hits the fan, everybody starts pointing fingers, but nothing gets done," Finn says. "It seems that it's been going on for years, and there is an absolute lack of leadership on this issue.

"It's a complicated problem, but ultimately you'd think real leaders would take the bull by the horns and fix this."

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