Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Jury awards fat verdict against Dallas County over jail health failures

For the second time in 18 months, a jury has awarded a plaintiff nearly $1 million because of inadequate healthcare provided by the Dallas County Jail. Reports the Dallas News ("Jury orders Dallas County to pay $900,000 over lack of medical care for fomer inmate," Aug. 27):

A federal court jury ordered Dallas County on Tuesday to pay $900,000 to a former Dallas County jail inmate for denying him proper medical care while he was in custody.

The jury found that Stanley Shepherd's constitutional rights were violated when he was denied basic medical care while in the Lew Sterrett Justice Center on burglary and drug charges in late 2003.

Jurors in the weeklong trial issued their verdict Tuesday morning after deliberating since about 1 p.m. Monday, said Don Tittle, the attorney for Mr. Shepherd. If lawyers' fees and interest are granted, the county could have to pay more than $1 million, he said.

Commissioner John Wiley Price, who has spearheaded recent jail improvements and who voted against contracting out jail health in 2002, said he disagreed with the verdict.

"We will appeal the case. We are going to be vindicated on appeal," he said.

Tuesday's verdict is significant for two reasons, Mr. Tittle said. First, it's the largest jury verdict over a jail-neglect suit against Dallas County. And second, the verdict is an indictment of the county's entire jail-health system instead of one or several isolated cases, he said. In legal terms, that means the jail's "general conditions of confinement" led to the damage suffered.

"It's a finding that they failed to meet the basic essential needs of an inmate" because of systemic problems, Mr. Tittle said.

Mr. Shepherd, 51, who testified during the trial, entered the jail in October 2003 on a burglary and drug charge and suffered the stroke in January 2004. In the seven weeks before his stroke, he received little or no treatment or medication despite high blood- pressure readings, Mr. Tittle said. Mr. Shepherd told the jail staff about his blood pressure medication upon being booked into the jail, the suit said.

He was taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital almost an hour after he was found on the floor of his cell, according to the lawsuit.

The charges against Mr. Shepherd were later dismissed.

Mr. Shepherd, who filed his federal lawsuit in 2005, uses a wheelchair and is paralyzed on his left side, Mr. Tittle said. He can only eat soft foods; his speech, hearing and sight are impaired; he is impotent and suffers from depression; and his wife must help him with everyday activities, the suit said.

With what we know about health care at the Dallas jail, I'd bet dollars to donuts Price is wrong the county will be "vindicated" on appeal. A report (pdf) from the feds issued this spring found some improvements, but overall said many of the same problems described in Mr. Shepherd's suit are still happening.

Indeed, given the details of the plaintiff's case and the clear culpability of the county, Mr. Price and the Commissioners Court might be better served spending money to improve jail health care instead of on appellate lawyers. When he makes comments like that it leads me to believe he's not serious about acknowledging or fixing the jail's problems.

To be honest, $1 million sounds like an awfully cheap payout considering what happened to this fellow and the permanent disabilities that resulted. How hard would it have been just to give him his high-blood pressure medicine, which was in the Sheriff's possession?

Plus, it's not like this is the first time this happened. As mentioned, last year Dallas County was ordered to pay damages for failing to provide adequate healthcare to three other plaintiffs; again from the Dallas News:

Tuesday's verdict – if intact after the county's appeal – will be the second six-figure payout in two years related to the jail's well-publicized problems in providing health care to its jail population.

In February 2007, commissioners agreed to pay $950,000 to the families of three mentally ill former inmates, one of whom died, to settle their civil rights lawsuit over jail medical care.

James Monroe Mims didn't get his medication for two months and nearly died after water to his cell was shut off for two weeks. Clarence Lee Grant Jr. died in his jail cell in 2003 after he did not receive any medicine for five days. And Kennedy Nickerson was found lying sick in the street after being released from the jail without medication or notice to his family.

Several scathing reports have criticized medical care in the Dallas County jail system, and the jails haven't met state standards since 2003.

The only reasons jail health won't be more of an issue in the hotly contested Dallas Sheriff's election are that it's unclear what if anything the GOP candidate might do differently, plus so much blame goes to the county commissioners court for failing to adequately fund jail health over the long haul.

Dallas County is presently in the midst of a self-manufactured budget crisis. The Commissioners Court has declared it won't raise taxes, then used the resulting projected shortfall to justify draconian cuts, mostly affecting services provided to the poorest among us. So unfortunately, in that context, major civil verdicts against the county may be the only way to get the Commissioners Court's attention and focus more resources on jail health on the front end.

UPDATE: Robert Guest adds that this is why Dallas should not be "using their jail to incarcerate those with outstanding traffic fines," noting that "To fill the coffers, Dallas launched the ill conceived "Operation Pay or Stay" program. The result is that one of the most dangerous jails in Texas, is now being used a debtor's prison." "Tarrant County has already had a traffic ticket arrest turn into a death sentence, wrote Guest. "It is only a matter of time before Dallas experiences a similar tragedy."


TxBluesMan said...

The conditions at Lew Sterrett are appalling. While they have many fine officers, the management has seemed to ignore the repeated problems at the jail, with Sheriff Lube Valdez apparently more concerned with filming a documentary than the health of the inmates.

Perhaps it is time to change the administration at the Sheriff's Office.

Anonymous said...

Have any of you seen or been a 'visitor' on that jail? from the outside, it looks like it is crumbling, from the inside, well, lets just say I've seen hotels that were torn down that were in better shape.

The floors are littered with broken tiles in the lobby, it smells of sewage, it is not very well lit, the accessibility requirements for those with handicaps is almost non-existent.

In all honesty, at some points it looks like one of our lovely 'detention facilities' in Iraq more than a jail.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I've not heard a peep from her opponent on this topic, bluesy. (And to be fair, the lawsuit addressed incidents that predated Lupe Valdez).

She's vulnerable on this, but IMO jail health can only become an election issue if Cannady offers an alternative vision for what he would do instead and I doubt he will; this is a tar baby nobody wants to touch.

The root of the problems at the Dallas jail are all based on overcrowding and, relatedly, understaffing. Overcrowding is a function of decisions made by police, prosecutors, and judges, while blame for understaffing falls on the commissioners court. No matter who is Sheriff, they won't be able to control those dynamics.

TxBluesMan said...


True, the blame can be spread around, and the Commissioner's Court is at fault too.

My problem with Lupe (and I voted for her last time) is that she hasn't stepped up to the plate with solutions. She just doesn't seem to be doing anything or proposing anything.

In any event, it needs to be fixed.

Anonymous said...

Good verdict! We get emails from family members about inmates not receiving medical care every week, but the astounding thing is that most are about one jail. Dallas County.
(Astounding because there are so many poorly run jails amongst the 258 local ones in Texas but Dallas is still far ahead/behind the others.)
Sometimes we are able to help relatives fight the jail and get some care for their inmate....see

Other times, it's too late and the person is already permanently damaged or dead.

Anonymous said...

She's vulnerable on this, but IMO jail health can only become an election issue if Cannady offers an alternative vision

Therein lies the problem. Why would the opponent set themselves up for failure by saying they can fix something that they don't have the funds to fix?

And on another note--I bet Henderson County is meeting with their lawyers right about now...

Anonymous said...

Good story in the chron today about possible diversion and mental health/addiction options.

None of which will probably come to pass..

Anonymous said...

The jail guards are untrained and Lupe had no experience in management and now she hired a jail commander from Smith County.That is going to be too little too late.The commissioner's court declares they will appeal,but in the end they will pay out more than $1 million because of the court costs and all of the attorney's fees they'll be ordered to pay.I agree with Grits that they already got off cheap.Why push the envelope? The jail is what it is and it's broke. I think it's unfair to expect Cannady to provide a plan to fix the jail when he has not been involved in the problem.Reading the reports merely confirms the problems.

Anonymous said...

"now she hired a jail commander from Smith County."

If Dallas has the worst run jail in the state Smith County probably comes in a close second. It's second only probably because it is not as large.

Anonymous said...

More money through the bottomless black hole in Dallas County.

Anonymous said...

You mean "white hole", right?

Anonymous said...

JWP thinks Dallas County will be vindicated on appeal? Based on what? Does he approve of the treatment this inmate received?

While it may be time to change the administration at the Sheriff's Office, it's also time to change the administration of Dallas County.

Anonymous said...

Well then what are we going to do about all these fast food chains? I mean having numerous various fast food franchises all around the globe with 80% of the meat being maggots and the rest of the 20% being meat, we are also being injected with something rather unhealthy into our body. Yes, we start little by little, but why not start with the people we care about more.. The Civilians not the Criminals.

Dont Be Denied said...

Now, no one wants to touch a story about women criminalizing themselves, and then dying from disease. But, I'm a witness to the filthy state facilities, liaisons and TDJC medical providers.

My cousin has been in prison for going 2 years. Over these years, I called her infirmary to make them aware of her staff infection, mouth abscesses, fevers, ear infections, abnormal pap smears and skin infections. They do absolutely nothing, and then relocate her to another facility to continue spreading the infection.

I can't access her to get a proper swab test and her lab results. If this is indeed, the staff infection called M.R.S.A. having it for over 2 years will kill her, eventually shutting down her organs just like A.I.D.S. does. When I request her inmate medical records, they deny her illness, but give her meds.

Do I contact a federal attorney or a personal atty to sue Dallas county or Texas TDJC medical providers responsible for M.R.S.A. in Texas prisons?

Anonymous said...

Very common to NOT get meds at this jail. My friend who has epilepsy was denied siezure meds and instead strapped fo a chair for two hours. Even though her doctor faxed ALL medical info to jail. You will also be denied mental health meds. . If you do get to see the bogus nurses and doctors that come every two weeks from parkland they will LIE to your face and say you will get meds. If you do happen to get meds it will be wrong dosage even though they have all of your info. In fact my friend was told that the jail doesnt have many siezure meds to give because no inmates ever have siezure issues. lol ! The jail also locks TB patients up with those who dont have TB. They also inject inmates with what tbey call "an HIV vaccine" ..laughable because we all know that there is no vaccine for HIV/AIDS. This place is a million times dirtier than the dallas zoo. Dont believe me..visit both and see for yourself. CLEARLY the good ole boy system keeps this illegal operation going because the building is fAlling apart,smells like sewage,has staff and bugs and mildew and various other things that violate health and city codes and of course laws. This jail is run by criminals for criminals. The idiots in austin will also side with jail if you make a complaint. Even if you have mountains of evidence. Sadly the stupid people of dallas vote for lupe because shes a lesbian latina..not because shes qualified. If youve heard her speak you know shes dumb as a box of nails and couldnt run a flea market much less a jail ! P.s. the entire city has always been run by crooks and always will be.