Exclusive: Feds Damn County Jail as "Grossly Inadequate"

Department of Justice officials have concluded that conditions at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center amount to a house of horrors.

It was even worse than anyone expected. Just more than a year after it launched its investigation of the Dallas County jail, the U.S. Department of Justice on Saturday sent to all five Dallas County commissioners, Sheriff Lupe Valdez and U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, Richard Roper, a blistering report in which it concluded that "certain conditions at DCJ violate the constitutional rights of inmates confined there." While the jail has generated ugly lawsuits and grim headlines for years, the report -- obtained by Unfair Park before its official release, which is scheduled for some time within the next 10 days -- portrays the place as far more horrifying than outsiders could have imagined.

Although the DOJ criticized how the jail is run, which reflects on Valdez's management of the place, the report mostly chronicles a pattern of negligent medical care. Several inmates died because of it, while others suffered grievous injuries or were left to contend with serious mental illnesses without the proper medication.

Alice Lynch-Fullen, whose brother's suicide at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center last October was referenced in the report as one of many the jail could have prevented, remains furious with both the Sheriff's Department and the jail's former medical provider, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She says she tried to warn guards that her brother should have been placed on suicide watch months before he killed himself; she was instead told only to stop coddling him.

"If I got to do a victim impact statement, I'd have the guards and the health care professionals stay in the same jail my brother did," Fullen tells Unfair Park today. "And we'll see if they make it."

The report chronicles a pattern of reckless and inept medical care at just about every level, including failing to provide adequate screening, acute care treatment and management of communicable disease, among other lapses. The report also found "numerous additional instances of deficient chronic care that put inmates' health and lives at serious risk." Among the more egregious findings:

At least 11 inmates died at the jail during a three-year period directly because of the poor medical care at the jail. One inmate died of pneumocystis pneumonia after he didn't receive an antibiotic he was prescribed at the time of intake. Another inmate with a documented history of alcholism and seizures went without physician or nursing care. He became disoriented, suffered from elevated blood pressure and developed a fever. Later, after he was found lying in his own feces, it took staff five hours to transfer him to the hospital where he later died. Another inmate hanged himself after which a physician's assistant said he was unable to attend to him because no detention service officer was available to escort him to the cell. The report concluded that the "current suicide practices are grossly inadequate."

The report -- signed by Wan J. Kim, the assistant attorney general for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division -- also found that at the Dallas County jail, inmates "routinely miss doses of life-sustaining medications," which has resulted in several deaths. Even on the first day Department of Justice investigators toured the jail, a "significant portion" of the jail's 7,000 inmates did not receive their medication. In addition, investigators observed medical staff administering incorrect doses of insulin to inmates, which it concluded could result in serious illness or death.

Investigators also cited the jail for failing to assess and treat inmates with mental health issues, resulting in a deterioration of certain symptoms, along with "unnecessary suffering." In one case, even after numerous referrals for psychiatric care, an inmate languished without care for two months before staff attended to him -- and then only after he had been lying in his own excrement for days. The inmate had not been receiving his anti-psychotic medication and was later hospitalized for dehydration and kidney failure.

The report also referred to the jail's sanitation practices, which falls under Valdez's responsibilities, as "grossly inadequate." Investigators found that "parts of the jail are filthy, subjecting inmates to an increased risk of health problems." Several toilets were leaking, floor and shower drains are in poor condition, while investigators spotted large concentrations of drain flies and fly larvae in the bathroom."

Unfair Park tried to get a comment from Valdez, who is out of town and has not yet seen the report, says a spokesperson. Also, UTMB officials said they too haven't seen the report.

The county has up to seven weeks to address the findings in the report before the Department of Justice begins legal proceedings against Dallas County. --Matt Pulle

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky