Fed-up Feds

U.S. Justice Department investigators find horrid conditions at Dallas County's jail

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. A large, imposing man, Lynch had ligature marks around his neck, alerting his distraught sister that he had tried to hang himself.

"Don't let me bury you; I can't bury you," Fullen told her brother.

Immediately, Fullen pleaded with guards to look after him, but they laughed at her. Later, a sergeant told her to stop "babying him." Over the next few months, Fullen and her parents continued to plead in vain with jail officials to place Lynch on suicide watch. A few months later, while Fullen was at the State Fair with her family, a detective with the Sheriff's Department told her that her brother was dead.

Despite their pleas for help, Augustina Silva and daughter Alice Lynch-Fullen lost a loved one at Dallas County's jail.
Mark Graham
Despite their pleas for help, Augustina Silva and daughter Alice Lynch-Fullen lost a loved one at Dallas County's jail.

"I started screaming at the middle of the State Fair. People are staring, and I'm just saying, 'Chris is dead, Chris is dead,'" Fullen recalls.

Jail officials would later tell her that her brother committed suicide after having overdosed on an antidepressant.

This week, the U.S. Justice Department concluded a near epic report on the county's jail, highlighting a grim pattern of negligent health care and unprofessional conduct that unnecessarily costs people their lives. Citing the jail for a long list of failures, from not treating communicable diseases to having large concentrations of drain flies and fly larvae swarming in bathrooms, the Justice Department's findings were far worse than anyone expected. Coming a little more than a year after the feds first announced their investigation of the jail, the report, first obtained by the Dallas Observer, documented at least 11 inmates whose deaths could have been prevented had both the Dallas County Sheriff's Department and the jail's medical provider followed basic standards of jail health and operation. One of those inmates was Christopher Lynch.

"It's as if they were POWs in a Third World country," says Fullen about the health care of inmates at the jail. "If I got to do an impact statement, I'd have the guards and the health care professionals stay in the same jail that my brother did, and we'll see if they make it."

Sent to all five county commissioners, along with Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who runs the jail, the report informed them that their facility regularly violates the rights of inmates confined there, particularly those who are ailing. "The DCJ [Dallas County jail] fails to provide inmates with adequate medical care that complies with constitutional requirements," the report notes, finding serious deficiencies in screening, chronic care, acute care, follow-up care, staffing and training, among other areas.

The report focused largely on the record of the jail's former medical provider, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB). Parkland Memorial Hospital didn't take over the medical care until last March, after the Justice Department began its investigation, and is largely being credited for improving certain practices. Still, the Justice Department's investigators exposed the jail's long record of incompetence, in which basic practices of medicine are typically ignored at grave risk to sick inmates. On the first day investigators toured the jail this past February, when UTMB's medical staff would be expected to be on their best behavior, many inmates failed to receive their medications. The Justice Department would conclude this was not exactly a one-time event.

"At DCJ, inmates routinely miss doses of life-sustaining medications," concluded the report.

At the Observer's press time, county officials, who have continually failed to staff the jail according to state standards, were still digesting the findings, but they don't exactly have the luxury to review them at their leisure. After having run the jail on the cheap for years, the county has now only seven weeks to address the recommendations of the report. If it doesn't, the "attorney general may initiate a lawsuit...to correct deficiencies of the kind identified in this letter."

Attorney David Finn, who has represented a number of inmates who have complained about the jail's health care practices, first alerted the Department of Justice about the condition of the jail nearly two years ago. The Sheriff's Department had just concluded that it had allowed inmate James Mims to "fall through the cracks" when he suffered renal failure nearly two weeks after guards turned off the water to his cell. Now as one of the attorneys representing Mims, Finn says the Department of Justice's report, which he read after the Observer faxed him a copy, corroborates the litany of allegations against the jail over the years.

"This puts a spotlight on the problem; it underlines the accuracy and legitimacy of our claims, and it will force the county to fix this mess," he says. "That's something our lawsuit can't do."

Although the report concentrates on the jail's abysmal record of mental and medical health care, it was also extremely critical of the operation of the jail, which is the responsibility of Sheriff Valdez. At press time, Valdez was out of town and had not yet reviewed the report's findings, but it's not likely she'll enjoy what she reads. The report notes that Valdez's correctional officers simply aren't trained to watch over suicidal inmates. The placement of inmates in suicide cells is arbitrary and often used as punishment instead of protection, prompting investigators to conclude that the jail's suicide practices are "grossly inadequate."

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