Monday, February 14, 2011

Jail deaths implicate state oversight, competency restoration funding

Having referenced recent media coverage of an untimely in-custody death in Longview of a woman jailed for traffic tickets, I should mention several notable stories about jail deaths out of Dallas, Houston and Corpus Christi. In Dallas, a homeless man died after he:
became increasingly sick behind bars and was mostly cared for by inmates, according to a Sheriff's Department investigation.

The inmates said they called officers for help as Morris' condition worsened but that no one came. Minutes before Morris was found not breathing, two jail guards walked by and saw him lying on the concrete floor but took no action, sheriff's reports show.
One of the officers who walked past him on the floor, reported Kevin Krause of the Dallas News, told investigators, "We decided not to wake him, as lying on the floor must have felt good to him, as the concrete was cool." But the problem appears to be a failure in healthcare delivery, not one bad decision by two jail guards: "A report from [federal] monitors' April visit said staff in the infirmary was 'not responding to patients in a manner consistent with an inpatient setting.'" 

The man's family has filed a wrongful death suit.

Meanwhile, the Houston Chronicle has a remarkable story by Peggy O'Hare detailing the final hours of a parolee arrested for burglary who police say died of cardiac arrest, but who appeared to have received a beating while in police custody. Mental health workers had seen the man earlier in custody with no apparent injuries, but after his "cardiac arrest" when family members saw him in the hospital, he was:
unresponsive in a hospital bed, wearing a neck brace and hooked up to a breathing machine. The side of his head was swollen, his chin displayed a bad gash and severe, gaping lacerations surrounded his wrists where the handcuffs had been, said his sister, Tamara Cathey, 35, of Houston. He had bruises on his legs where restraints had been applied after his arrest, she said.

She said her brother had a strange raspberry-colored mark on his chest, which his family suspects might have been caused by a Taser.

Police told Cathey's family he suffered cardiac arrest as they tried to book him into the Harris County Jail, but Cathey's visible injuries left his family wondering why his heart stopped. He never woke up. Two days later — exactly one month to the day after his release from prison - Cathey's family decided to disconnect his life support.
Police reports by the arresting officers do not explain the injuries. "The family's lawyer, John T. Floyd, is not ready to say if foul play was involved in the parolee's death. But he believes the case warrants close examination."

Finally, a jail death in Nueces County appears to have resulted from untreated meningitis; the deceased inmate had been declared incompetent to stand trial and was in jail awaiting competency restoration. The inmate had refused medical treatment, reports KIII-TV, but a commenter posed an excellent question with many implications for local jails:  "How can someone who is deemed mentally incompetent be allowed to refuse treatment?!" If an inmate is declared incompetent to plead "guilty," should they really be considered competent to dictate their medical care while in custody? This is an issue that will continue to vex Texas jails as long as there are waiting lists for competency restoration services.

The death in Corpus Christi may raise additional questions about conditions and treatment of prisoners at the Nueces County Jail. Brandi Grissom at the Texas Tribune had reported last year that:
According to [Texas Commission on Jail Standards] records, the jail has failed about 40 percent of its inspections over the last five years. Since September 2009, there have been five deaths at the jail — the same number of deaths that occurred in the same period of time at the Dallas County Jail, which houses eight times more people. The commission issued six noncompliance notices to [Sheriff] Kaelin from September 2009 to April 2010. The most recent failure notice cited three violations, including jailers failing to notify the commission of an inmate death within 24 hours and jail officials not completing mental health and suicide screening forms.
These stories have additional implications for the state budget being debated in Austin. The Commission on Jail Standards already has little ability to evaluate jail health matters, but instead of beefing up its capacity, the agency faces significant cuts. Meanwhile, the proposed House and Senate budgets would both cut inpatient mental hospital funding at a time when jails face waiting lists to get competency restoration for defendants like the fellow in Nueces County.

Jails are the single biggest expense of county government, and arguably their biggest source of liability. Given these incidents (and others like them), surely it'd be unwise at this juncture for the state to scale back county jail oversight or reduce the number of "forensic" state hospital beds available for competency restoration. When it comes to deaths in custody, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

UPDATE/RELATED: This morning I noticed legislation by Rep. Jose Menendez, HB 748, which among other things would require mandatory dismissal of cases where misdemeanor defendants wait in jail longer for competency restoration than the law would allow them to be sentenced if they'd been convicted. Good bill.


Anonymous said...

The Commission on Jail Standards already has little ability to evaluate jail health matters, but instead of beefing up its capacity, the agency faces significant cuts.

What do you mean when you say TCJS has little ability to evaluate jail health matters? They require a plan under Chapter 273 TAC. Are you saying TCJS does not have qualified personnel to evaluate a jail's health plan?

Prison Doc said...

Yup. In my experience they generally skip medical or almost skip it. Other surveyors like ACA and NCCHC look very closely (but generally don't do county jails) but not TCJS.

Anonymous said...

"This is an issue that will continue to vex Texas jails as long as there are waiting lists for competency restoration services."

It's ironic the legislature created the law but does nothing to ensure timely services are rendered to those under articles 46B.073 and that the courts do not release on bail those under 46B.072

You will not see improvements to the care of mentally ill inmates until you see the time when they are not housed in county jails. Texas sheriff's should not be saddled with this responsibility.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:15, all they do is make sure they jail has a plan. They have no staff expertise to evaluate it, much less assess its implementation, outcomes, etc..

Anonymous said...

So they have a rule in a place but they have no one on staff with expertise to evaluate a jail's medical plans. This could suggest there's a problem as to what the qualifications should be for someone working for this agency.

Why would the commission have imposed a rule but not have anyone on staff qualified to evaluate its effect? If they have no one on staff to evaluate a jail's medical plans, what other areas in their purview are TCJS personnel not qualified to evaluate?

Maybe the lege needs to like at this and ensure that TCJS is staffed with personnel who can make these evaluations and not just hire former jailers as inspectors and a former sheriff as its executive director.

Anonymous said...

Quit getting arrested, quit being a criminal for a living. If you don't like jail/prison, quit fucking doing the dumb shit that gets you put in there. Have some fucking common sense. Quit whining.

Anonymous said...

11:51:00 am,

I agree with you 100%.

However, people with free will continue to make bad choices. As sad and ridiculous as it sounds, once they are incarcerated, their medical care becomes our problem. It's a fact of life.

We can either pony up and pay the money necessary to be sure that inmates basic medical needs are met and that health issues are dealt with immediately and satisfactorily . . . or, we can keep cutting checks to plaintiff's lawyers.

Given the cost of defending lawsuits and the eventual payouts associated with them, the cost of properly attending to inmate health issues, in the long run will save us, the tax payers, money down the road.

Anonymous said...

Quit getting arrested? Sometimes that's impossible. Yesterday my boyfriend was arrested because my drunk, violent neighbor falsely accused him of a crime that he would never commit. The man is innocent and has never been in trouble with the law before; he's a local business man with high moral reputation and is known throughout the state for the exemplary work he does. He also has a history of stokes.

When he left home yesterday afternoon, he took a bucketful of prescription medications with him. Later, from the Bastrop County jail, he called to say he was having a stroke but the yay-hoos on duty ignored him and refused medical treatment. His standing order from his neurologist is to get to a hospital immediately at the first onset of these symptoms. The jailers refused to summon a physician and they refused to take him to the emergency room. He is still in jail as I write this and he still has not been given life-saving medical attention.

He may die at the hands of the local jailers without ever having committed a crime. Stop getting arrested, you say. Sounds good but you can be jailed in Texas without having ever committed a crime. I am living through that nightmare right this minute.

Anonymous said...

Not get arrested? How many felonies are there....just involving oysters?

David RD said...

to Anonymous 2/14/2011 11:51:00 AM - you are a idiot!! and a fool!! do you not realize that a cop having a bad day can basically arrest one for anything he feels he can accuse you of?? pull your "lilly white" head out of your butt and get out in the World and meet some REAL people!

a couple of instances of inadequate medical care: my dear friend in Williamson County jail, with a diagnosed mental illness, awaiting trial and his crappy court appointed attny to show up, requested medical care (psych) because he was not getting his medication (as established at the Austin State Hospital to treat his mental illness). he was told it would be 8 weeks before he could see a psych to adjust or change his meds!! he wasn't given his meds either until almost 7 days after being transferred to the Wilco jail from the Travis Cty jail. the Travis Cty jail sent specific medical records from ASH and their psych and prescribing guidelines and meds yet Wilco would not administer meds until 7 days after they took custody and then said it would 8 weeks to see the doc/psych.

he's now in TDC Smith Unit in Lamesa, TX. about a month ago he slipped in his cell on a patch of wet concrete around 11pm or so. he fell, hit his head on the corner of his bunk and tore a 2 inch gash in his scalp - gushing blood. he finally got to the infirmary around midnight only for the nurse to put some tape on it and send him back to his cell with neosporin. he asked for it to be sewn closed with stitches, but the nurse said no. the next day he was "written" up with a "case" and put on restriction?? WTF? written up with a case and restriction because you requested medical care for an emergency? no infraction was committed yet punished for asking for proper medical treatment?

how much of this goes on in the TDCJ "Gulag" prisons and County jails? i think anyone with any kind of knowledge or experience with this corrupt system knows that it is rampant and ingrained to the point of being inhumane and barbaric! County jails, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and even judges completely ignore anyone with mental illness and releasing them on bond as required by 468-072. his court appointed defense attorneys would even broach the subject with the court or prosecutors - even though he was non violent, no prior convictions, and was arrested on small time drug charges.

i still ask WTF???

Anonymous 2/14/2011 11:51:00 AM - you're still an idiot that doesn't even begin to know, much less even want to understand, this corrupt system!! maybe when someone you dearly love - your son or daughter, your wife, family member, or just a close friend - falls into it only then will you truly experience it's corruptness!

Anonymous said...

"This morning I noticed legislation by Rep. Jose Menendez, HB 748, which among other things would require mandatory dismissal of cases where misdemeanor defendants wait in jail longer for competency restoration than the law would allow them to be sentenced if they'd been convicted. Good bill."

Agree Scotty. But lets not stop there. We should do the same for other misdemanor defendants. One other thing I would like to see and that is magistrates cannot set bail higher on any defendant than what the maximum fine would be for the particular misdemeanor offense charged.

Whatcha think?

Anonymous said...

My son is an inmate in one of Texas prison's and he passed kidney stones with not even an aspirin given. He passed out on the nurse. WTH is that about? He is there for a probation violation. Did he deserve to suffer for several days while he hoped this would pass? This is inhuman behavior.