Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Feds: Dallas jail healthcare still not up to snuff

I'm not sure how I missed a new report (pdf) from the feds last month about improvements and deficiencies at the Dallas County jail, but the story by Kevin Krause at the Dallas News ("New report finds Dallas jail improved but still falling short on health care," July 22) contains a good analysis of what's been accomplished at the jail and the mainly healthcare related shortcomings USDOJ says they still need to address. Perhaps most disturbingly:

Mentally ill inmates are inappropriately locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, because of staffing shortages and lack of space for "out-of-cell time," according to the report.

In the mental health category, other problems reported were a difficulty in tracking patients, lack of privacy, inadequate staffing and a lack of adequate space to conduct mental health evaluations.

That said,

The report highlighted several areas of improvement, including jail maintenance response times, the cleanliness of laundry, and a training program to help jail guards recognize and respond to health emergencies.

In addition, there is now excellent leadership of health operations, the jails are on a "steady foundation of funding," and clinical staffs are of high quality, the report said.

However quite a few areas still needed upgrading; here's Krause's summary:

• Difficulty tracking patients' medical needs.

• Lack of privacy during medical screening.

• Lack of follow-up for inmates returning from the hospital.

• Inadequate fire safety systems in all five jails, including broken or inadequate alarm systems in four jails.

• Slow response to inmate sick calls.

• Use of dirty mattresses that can no longer be cleaned and should be thrown out.

• Improper use of chemical cleaning agents by inmates.

• Lack of dedicated sanitation officers.

Inevitably these criticisms of the jail will be thrown into the political fire this fall, and rightly so, though I'm not sure Republican Lowell Cannady would do any better - he's a former Dallas police supervisor and Irving police chief who's never worked in a jail and brings no experience in correctional health to the table.

It's little secret that Dallas County Republicans view Sheriff Lupe Valdez as the weakest down-ballot candidate they have a chance to unseat; if she's vulnerable, it's because of how she's managed the jail. She's been there a full term and it's time to own the problems; after four years she can no longer blame them on her predecessor, even if they did exist before she got there.

In such a high-turnout election with a popular Democratic presidential candidate above her on the ballot, I personally think Valdez's vulnerability may be overstated. But the stakes are high on many levels and if more voters split tickets locally because of the Sheriff's race, GOP leaders hope they can stifle Democratic gains among Dallas judgeships from the 2006 election, possibly even creating an electoral roadmap for challenging popular District Attorney Craig Watkins in 2010.

One problem with this blame game in the Sheriff's race is that funding from the county commissioners court - not any decision the Sheriff makes - remains the primary barrier to fixing problems like inadequate staffing to manage mentally ill inmates.

Dallas isn't the only Texas jail facing similar problems managing mentally ill or sick offenders in the face of staffing shortages, but they're the only one with the USDOJ looking over their shoulder waiting to force them to fix things with a court order. The Supreme Court has long declared counties are constitutionally required to provide healthcare to those in their jails. If Dallas won't pony up for adequate carceral health care services, I wouldn't be surprised when one day soon a federal judge steps in and takes the decision, not to mention control of the cost, entirely out of their hands.


Anonymous said...

This story was provided just in case you needed more reasons to avoid breaking the law.

Jail is bad m'kay.

Anonymous said...

The staff at the jail is not "high quality". They are still overworked, untrained, underpaid.
They still use very foul language when addressing the inmates. This is unprofessional and often provokes them needlessly.

They are still rude, out-of-line, insensitive. They put on a "tough front" to mask their own fears and total ignorance.

There are a few good officers who try hard, but the bad apples overshadow their good work.

Dallas jails have a long way to go........I work there and we are not even close to human or humane decency....

Anonymous said...

Wrong on Cannaday never running a jail, Irving has a jail, albeit a small one. But it didn't have any problems when he was chief. Also, unlike Lupe, he listens to the advice of smart people.

I'm voting for change in the fall and taking a chance on Obama. I'll do the same with Cannaday, since Lupe has proven herself worthless.

Anonymous said...

My brother, William Harrison, TDCJ #864645 recently sent me an interesting article that contained an allegation about a TDCJ inmate that got cataract surgery at the UTMB hospital in Galveston and is now blind. When this guy gets out I hope he lives another hundred years and costs Texas, and the Social Security Administration, millions in benefits before he expires. Too bad the Texas public is so moronic that they believe the "daily cost for a prisoner" figures that TDCJ holds up and tries to gloat over. Well, as de Tocqueville said "A people get the government they deserve" and the Texas public deserves TDCJ, the Texas court system and the Texas bar association. When my brother gets out in 11 years I will move to Texas and have my attorney waiting to sign him up for every single federal, state, and local social program that there is. I am amazed that prisoner advocacy groups have not come together to form a single group that helps physically and mentally disabled TDCJ alumni sign up for all the assistance programs they are eligible for just as soon as they are released. Short of a big lawsuit win this is probably the only way that the doltish public can learn what they are really paying--NO ONE in state government is going to be honest and tell the dullards what is really going on. Thank you, James Harrison, William's brother

Anonymous said...

I would bet the USDOJ would be interested to learn just how many convicts now have Alzheimer's and are being identified and treated "oh so slowly" so as to minimize expense!

Anonymous said...

As a taxpayer who lives outside Texas I am thankful that my aging brother is currently soaking up thousands of health care dollars annually in the Skyview Unit. If he were on the outside, Medicare would be paying for all this, but since he is in a Texas state prison the state gets to pay for everything. Thank you from a Virginia taxpayer.