Keys to the Jail

There's only one thing tougher than running for Dallas County sheriff—getting people to care

A unanimous commissioners court sought a restraining order to prevent camera crews from filming inside the jail, alleging legal liability and jail security as concerns. But Valdez, represented by District Attorney Craig Watkins, fought back, claiming that she had the authority to allow the film crew access as part of her legal responsibility to control and supervise the jail. But she stopped the initial shooting in anticipation of a ruling from District Judge Carlos Cortez. When Cortez granted a temporary restraining order for two weeks, the Discovery Channel decided to pull the plug on the project.

Commissioner Mike Cantrell says the uproar caused by Valdez was "absolutely insane... It just seemed to me to smack of politics."

Even her strongest political ally turned against her. "Cameras can't be allowed to go willy-nilly around the jail," Price says.

The Republican Party paraded a man in a chicken costume outside a Valdez fund-raiser, infusing life into an otherwise boring campaign.
The Republican Party paraded a man in a chicken costume outside a Valdez fund-raiser, infusing life into an otherwise boring campaign.
Lowell Cannaday and Lupe Valdez have engaged in several lackluster debates in their race for Dallas County sheriff.
Brandon Thibodeaux
Lowell Cannaday and Lupe Valdez have engaged in several lackluster debates in their race for Dallas County sheriff.

Valdez claims she was acting on the advice of one of her chiefs, and that she thought the documentary would air in March. "Why not show something positive?" she says.

Whether seeking positive publicity or political advantage, Valdez recently has encouraged members of the local media to tour the jail—this, despite her history of press snubs and rebuffs. "She has hardly been a media darling," Price admits.

During a tour given to the Observer, a man in a wheelchair wearing a blue hospital gown shields his eyes with his hand, startled as seven people pour out of an elevator into the mental health unit in the West Tower of Lew Sterrett.

"Notice the smell," Valdez says.

A few deep breaths yield no distinct odor, but that's exactly what she's hinting at. Valdez explains that when she took over the Dallas County jail, mentally ill inmates were spreading their feces on the walls.

White jail cells border what was once a weight room for officers. In March, the room was transformed into an office area for mental health professionals. The doctor in charge, who doesn't want his name used "to keep his family safe," says Valdez's leadership has been instrumental in creating what he believes is now one of the top 10 jail medical health facilities in the country.

"This place used to be a dungeon," he says.

In July 2005, after two failed jail inspections and a damning outside consultant's report, the commissioners court voted to replace the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, which had been the jail's health care provider since September 2002, with Parkland Health & Hospital Systems. Valdez says her cooperation with Parkland, which took over in March 2006, has created a completely new atmosphere, and the jail doctor agrees. He describes staff morale as "very high" and says everyone is treated with dignity and respect. The ratio of inmates needing restraint is low, he adds. "The environment has changed from hostile to therapeutic."

Sharon Phillips, senior vice president of community-oriented primary care for Parkland Health & Hospital Systems, says both the budget and staff have doubled since the changeover, which have been keys to making incredible strides. The Observer spoke with Phillips on October 2, as the Justice Department was wrapping up its scheduled biannual tour of the jail. Phillips says department officials commented on its cleanliness, saying there was a noticeable change since their first visit. "We've made tremendous improvements," adds Phillips, who expects the jail to meet all federal standards before the department's four-year oversight period expires.

Valdez says she has healed many of the gaping wounds left behind by Bowles, but admits that it will take another 18 months to make a complete turnaround. She boasts that overpopulation is no longer an issue, as the jail is 84 percent occupied, according to the most recent data from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Valdez also says staffing is under control after hiring 700 new employees and meeting the required 1:48 guard-to-inmate ratio.

George Milner III, a Dallas criminal defense lawyer for 14 years, says he's seen significant improvements in the jail across the board, noting that advances in health care are clearly evident under Valdez's leadership. But he says there is room for improvement. His clients still complain that it can take 12-18 hours to get bonded out of jail.

Commissioners Price, Cantrell and Mayfield agree that the jail was in shambles when Valdez took over, and the only major issue holding the jail back from passing its next inspection is the installation of a smoke evacuation system. But Cannaday isn't ready to lavish praise on Valdez—at least not yet. Not until the jail can pass an inspection, not until there is a documented history of success—neither of which have occurred under Valdez's tenure.

"She says it's almost fixed now and we've made tremendous strides; well, how do you know that? They're still failing," he says. "You need to have past inspections in order to say that in fact things are fixed, and they're not, or they would have passed."

Despite a campaign that at times has been too lackluster to capture the public's imagination, voters will be asked to weigh Valdez's track record as sheriff against Cannaday's experience and endorsements. Even then, the race ultimately may be determined on the Republican Party's ability to match the turnout of the Democrats, many of whom are expected to flock to the polls and vote a straight ticket in support of Barack Obama.

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