Fatal Phone Tree

The Dallas County sheriff makes people disappear right off the face of the earth, and you and I have no earthly way of finding out where they are or what has happened. It's like the damn desparecidos in Argentina 25 years ago.

County officials are pointing fingers at each other, blaming the mess on a new computer system. But the person responsible for holding prisoners is our new sheriff, Lupe Valdez.

She doesn't respond to media inquiries. Not mine, anyway. But here is the bottom line. It's her jail. It's her job. It's her responsibility to honor the right of habeas corpus and see to it that people don't disappear behind bars.

She's doing a lousy job.

Let me point out something else before we go on: The people with the most important need to know who's in jail are crime victims. You better believe a rape victim wants to know where that attacker is in the system every hour of every day. And victims have been totally cut off from the information they need by this mess.

Johnnie Miller wasn't a victim. He started trying last summer to contact a casual friend, Bruce Grimsley. He couldn't reach Grimsley by phone, so he dropped by his apartment.

"I just went over there, and he was never there," Miller told me.

Someone tipped Miller that Grimsley had been arrested and taken to the county jail, but Miller could get no one at the jail to confirm a thing. He challenged me to call the same number he had--the one you're supposed to be able to call to get inmate information from the jail.

This is exactly what I hear when I dial 214-761-9025, along with some of what I'm thinking while I listen: I call the "intake center" of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department.

A woman's voice says: "You have reached the Dallas County Sheriff's Department. If you need information regarding the Texas VINE system or are calling in response to a call from Texas VINE, press nine now. To continue in English, please hold. Pair of continue r in ess pan ole, mark a el noom roe you-know."

I'm going to assume that is a person of Anglo extraction attempting to speak Spanish. I'm going to hope it won't happen again.

Ah, here she is, back again, this time in her mother tongue: "For information on whether a person is in jail or the status of an inmate, press two now."

I press. Boink. I wait.

"To find out if someone is being held in a Dallas County jail, press one now."

Well, it seems to me we have already covered this ground, and the choice was "press two." But I'm game. I press one this time. Boink.

"To find out if someone is being held in a Dallas County jail..."

Oh, man, now you're playing me. But I'm going to stay cool. You can't crack me that easy.

" can be connected with the intake center of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department..."

I thought that was what I was calling in the first place!

"...or you may use an automated system, the Texas VINE system. Because of high call volumes, it is typically quicker to use Texas VINE. This system can provide information in Spanish, if needed."

I doubt it.

"To be connected to Texas VINE, you may press one now."

Gee. This is a classic. Boink!

"Please hold. Your call is being transferred."

I wait.

"To continue in English, press one."

Well, let me think about that one. You know, I started in English, and I just think I ought to dance with the one that brung me. Plus, if I don't, you're going to offer me another pair of continue R's. BOINK!

"Welcome to the statewide VINE service. You can call this service at any time to get up-to-date information on an offender's custody status, charges and upcoming court events. If you need jail information such as operating procedures and visiting hours, you will need to call the jail directly. If you need to search for information about an offender in a county jail, press one."

This better work. That's all I can say. Me and "Press One," we been around the block one too many times on this already. This had better work! Boink.

"If you know the offender's identification number, press one."

Well, I think that's a good thing. I do know his number. This is a step ahead. What did she say to press? I can't...Oh, no! I have to remember. If I make a mistake, she'll throw me back in the briar patch. It was one, right? Boink.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze