Dallas Can't Spin Latest Jail Lawsuit

The County can't get away from the latest bad news on its troubled jail

Jeffrey Ellard lies in a bed at Presbyterian Hospital recovering from surgery. Nearly two weeks ago, doctors implanted a metal rod in his left leg in place of his femur. In June 2006, a judge ordered a special hearing allowing Ellard to be released from the Dallas County jail so he could receive emergency care. While he was incarcerated, Ellard had to change his own bandages and wasn't taken to see a doctor even as the cut in his leg became badly infected.

When Ellard appeared in court, he had a six-inch wound that blazed a path to his upper thigh before opening into a big, soggy hole stocked with pus and the pieces of toilet paper he used to stem the bleeding.

"It was extremely painful and at times it was excruciating," Ellard says from his hospital bed. "I spent hours and hours just suffering. Eventually I fell asleep out of exhaustion."

Today, David Finn, the attorney who intervened to arrange the emergency court appearance for Ellard after hearing from his distraught sister, says that his client is still fighting for his health. "He has cancer in the wound, and he may still lose his leg."

Earlier this month the U.S. Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit against the county and Sheriff Lupe Valdez after one too many stories like Jeffrey Ellard's. "Defendants have engaged in and continue to engage in a pattern or practice of failing to protect inmates at the Dallas County Jail from serious harm and undue risk from serious harm," reads the complaint. The feds also point out that the problems at the jail have been "obvious and known to Defendants for a substantial period of time, yet Defendants have failed to address adequately the conditions described."

Incredibly, the county and sheriff's office tried to spin the lawsuit as a mere legal technicality. Allen Clemson, administrator for the county, says that the Department of Justice's lawsuit formalizes local authorities' own efforts to improve the jail, which have included hiring new guards, changing medical providers and building a new tower to ease overcrowding.

"The claim that was filed in federal court is a legal step that is needed to get the agreement that we had with DOJ before the judge so it could be signed," Clemson explains.

Both Clemson and Valdez have also noted how the Justice Department praised them for their "unprecedented" level of cooperation, which is akin to a teacher praising a failing student for trying really hard. Regardless of the county's post-lawsuit PR, when Justice Department officials first announced their investigation of the jail, they told the county that the prospect of a lawsuit was an "entirely unexpected event." So, what happened?

Mark Haney, one of the attorneys who won a $950,000 settlement from the county last year in a federal lawsuit against the jail, says that the Justice Department's litigation shows the federal government does not trust the locals to fix the problem. "What the feds are demanding is accountability," he says. "The county has demonstrated historically that their word is not good, so the feds are saying the only way we're going to walk away from this thing is if we have a court order that forces the county to do the right thing."

Although Sheriff Valdez inherited a troubled office when she was elected in 2004, it's not clear the jail is any safer or more sanitary now than when she took over. While much of the Justice Department's investigation criticized the facility's old health care provider, which does not directly fall under the sheriff's responsibility, the feds remained sharply critical of how the place is run. The feds' report describes the facility as a filthy place, which they illustrate vividly, including one depiction of how flies buzz above clogged shower drains in several of the facility's bathrooms. Perhaps most important, the report concluded that guards were poorly trained, particularly in recognizing signs of mental illnesses.

In one particularly gut-wrenching case, the feds tell the story of "W.T.," a schizophrenic inmate who suffered a seizure and fell off her bunk. Officers responded but told nurses she was merely "dizzy." Based on that evaluation, the nurses chose not to check up on the inmate. Three hours later, the inmate was found dead in her cell.

"This death may have been prevented had the officers recognized that W.T.'s condition was critical and communicated this to the nursing staff," the report read.

The sheriff's office has implemented several policies recently to improve how it cares for mentally ill inmates. For one, the jail now gives mental and medical health assessments to men and women as soon as they're processed. The office has also developed training programs for guards to help them spot mental health crises.

With Valdez, a Democrat, facing a spirited primary challenger, her office is quick to point out the steps they've taken to improve the long-beleaguered jail. In addition to the new mental health policies, the sheriff's office has adopted dozens of detailed changes, ranging from how it sanitizes mattresses to the way it investigates inmate suicides.

Despite the department's new measures, in March the Texas Commission on Jail Standards flunked the Dallas County jail for the fourth straight time, including every test under Valdez's watch. The state's main complaint was that the facility is understaffed. That's not the fault of Valdez, and the Dallas County Commissioners Court has only recently begun to fix that by spending more than $10 million for new guard positions.

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