By Jim Schutze
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"There's little likelihood DOJ will let them off the hook easily," says Mark Haney, who is one of the attorneys representing Mims and who has talked to investigators about the jail.
Through her spokesman, Valdez declined to answer any questions about the Justice Department's investigation. On the subject of jail health, however, she says that Chief Deputy Edgar McMillan, who is responsible for inmate detention, issued a written directive last year giving supervisors the authority to take action whenever they believe the medical department has failed its duties, "even to the point of sending the affected inmate to the hospital."
But a Sheriff's Department employee points out that Valdez has made no significant changes concerning how officers and supervisors are trained. This is a significant issue, especially considering that the department's own internal affairs investigators blamed the guards after Mims went without water. Through her spokesman, Valdez does not specify any change she's made in training other than those mandated by law. Insiders say the sheriff has no chance to improve the operation of the jail if she fails to overhaul how the jailers approach their jobs.
"There is a big difference in providing the minimum standards required to keep an employee licensed and providing extra training to improve things," says one employee at the Sheriff's Department.
In interviews with guards and supervisors, many of them are quick to pin the blame for the jail's problems on UTMB for failing to grasp the enormity of health problems at a big urban jail like Dallas. But for families of inmates who have died, there is plenty of blame to go around.
In February 2005, Alice Lynch-Fullen visited her brother Christopher Lynch at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center after he was arrested on rape charges in Grand Prairie. When Fullen saw her brother, she saw ligature marks on his neck suggesting he had tried to hang himself. She begged him, "Don't let me bury you; I can't bury you."
He was not responsive.
Desperate and distraught over her brother's mental state, Fullen pleaded with guards to look after him. "I said I wasn't going to leave until I talked to someone, and they laughed at me."
Fullen finally met with a sergeant who sent two guards to look at her brother. The guards radioed back and told her that Lynch said what his sister thought were ligature marks was really a rash. "I told her it's not a rash. I used to be a nurse. And they said 'You're just babying him.'"
Lynch was later convicted on multiple counts of rape, and if you think that whatever last happened to him behind bars is just punishment, consider that his plight as a ward of Dallas County has been shared by people charged with simple assault and driving with a suspended license--innocent and guilty alike. Or forget about him and think about his family. To Fullen, her brother was a giant teddy bear of a man, a loving son and father who rebuilt their parent's home after it burned.
Throughout Lynch's stay in jail, Fullen and her parents along with Lynch's wife continued to receive letters from jail that hinted at suicidal tendencies. Over the next few months, the sister continued to plead with jail officials to put her brother on suicide watch. They refused. On October 10, while Fullen was at the Texas State Fair with her family, a detective with the Sheriff's Department told her that Christopher Lynch was dead.
"I started screaming in the middle of the state fair. People are staring, and I'm just saying, 'Chris is dead, Chris is dead.'"
The jail would later tell her that her brother committed suicide, overdosing on nortriptyline, an anti-depressant that had been prescribed to him. Like so many jail deaths, Lynch's is shrouded in mystery. Although Lynch was found to have a lethal amount of nortriptyline in his system, the jail returned three unopened bottles of the medication to Fullen. How exactly did he overdose on pills that he never seemed to receive? How could he have obtained more than the recommended dosage to start? Fullen and her family have met with a lawyer to try to find out more answers and presumably to take the sheriff and county to court.
Fullen can't talk about her brother without crying. She apologizes profusely. We dance around the circumstances of why her brother was in jail in the first place, but at some point the question has to be asked. Even if you believe your brother was innocent, what would you say to people who have trouble sympathizing with the death of a convicted rapist?
"He was a human being entitled to basic rights. He had a family who loved him and missed him every day," she says. "His going to Lew Sterrett was a death sentence."
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