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Dallas County Jail: Resistance and a Lack of Accountability

Nov 28th, 2010 | Category: Dallas County

By KEVIN KRAUSE / The Dallas Morning News /Saturday, November 27, 2010

When the Dallas County jails failed inspection for the seventh time last year, consultants brought in to fix the problem encountered a stressed-out and overworked Sheriff’s Department with a culture that resisted change and failed to hold its employees responsible for repeated problems, according to reports.

Carl R. Griffith and Associates, the Port Arthur-based firm hired by county commissioners, detailed such challenges in status reports to county officials while it helped Sheriff Lupe Valdez to beef up jail staffing and to finally pass inspection in August.

However, with the next annual jail inspection just four months away, the consultants are busy heading off a new crisis – jail crowding – that threatens to derail the county jails’ certification.

Valdez dismisses some of the consultants’ findings, saying the firm merely validated what her agency already knew in many cases.

The jail population has grown by about 1,000 inmates this year despite falling crime rates and fewer people being booked into the jails. The consultants say the county’s criminal justice system is prosecuting inmates much slower than it was only a year earlier.

When the jails failed inspection in March 2009, it came as a blow to county commissioners. They had authorized more than $170 million in improvements, including a new jail tower, in an attempt to fix inadequate staffing, poor sanitation and maintenance, and faulty fire-safety systems.

Two months later, the commissioners sought outside help. They signed a contract with Griffith, who served as Jefferson County’s sheriff for eight years and its county judge for a decade. The firm has been paid $537,494 through August 2010, records show.


One of the firm’s first assessments was that the Sheriff’s Department did not hold employees responsible for problems that persisted. Some inside the agency agreed.

For example, reports issued by Valdez’s jail-inspection teams did not say who wrote them. They also didn’t say who should be doing which maintenance tasks and when. And it was unclear whether the tasks were ultimately done.

“If there is no author it is unlikely there will be accountability,” a Griffith report said.

The consultants recommended in-house inspections, regular meetings to address problems, detailed reports citing all violations and fixes, as well as a system for identifying people in charge who would certify in writing that proper staffing was in place for all shifts.

Supervisors should be held personally responsible for making sure all people are where they should be. If not, they should be held accountable with discipline, remedial tr


aining or poor performance appraisals, according to the firm’s recommendations.

Valdez said that her agency did hold employees responsible and that accountability was “raised once the needed resources were identified and provided.” The Griffith firm, which had experience dealing with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, told county officials the state wanted more than excuses for recurring


“We have seen a significant effort to simply explain what happened as though the explanation solves the problem,” consultant Richard Kirkland wrote in a letter to county staff.

State jail regulators, the consultants said, told them they didn’t think jail staff were “committed or able to resolve these problems over the long term.”

Around this time, roughly mid-2009, the commissioners replaced their longtime fire marshal and their maintenance director. Darryl Martin, who had just been hired to replace the retired county administrator, recommended the personnel changes.

“There were areas we continued to fail on, and we still had the same people in place,” Martin said.

RESISTANCEAs Griffith and his consultants tried to gather data from the Sheriff’s Department to fix the staffing problem, they reported running into strong resistance from officials who were defensive and resentful of the intrusion.

They could not get the data they needed fast enough.

“They don’t seem to have the same sense of urgency that we like to operate with,” Kirkland wrote.

Valdez said there is always initial resistance whenever an outside agency is brought in to study an organization’s operations. She said it was “quickly resolved with open communication and teamwork.”

The state requires one guard to supervise every 48 inmates. Despite spending millions in overtime, the sheriff could not keep up. As a result, the county was spending too much money on overtime and contributing to burnout among officers, the consultants concluded.


They quickly discovered the problem: The jails were fully staffed on paper, but the sheriff had problems filling shifts because of unplanned absences.

“Our review of the Sheriff’s Office indicates a stressed and overworked agency that does not appear to have the time or the ‘system’ to address these issues,” the consultants wrote in a status report.

Griffith devised a more accurate staffing plan and then recommended more jail guard positions to help plug the holes, which commissioners approved. Valdez said that her agency had already identified the need for more officers and that Griffith “validated our findings.”

The consultants had high praise for Commissioner John Wiley Price, who they said helped them change the culture of the Sheriff’s Department, which viewed the jail system as a series of separate lock-ups, rather than one institution. Price prodded jail staff to view the system as one jail and to work together.

With the new one-jail philosophy, sheriff’s officials could follow a Griffith recommendation of borrowing guards from one jail to fill vacancies in another.

“That was and is essential to changing the culture,” Kirkland wrote.

Valdez said the consultants “supported our recommendation for the one-jail concept.”

Price Takes Charge
After about three months on the job, the consultants were still running into pockets of resistance even though they praised Price for taking charge and showing strong leadership. At least one of Valdez’s captains scoffed at new ideas during a meeting, saying “We’re too big to do those things.”

But Kirkland said he saw Valdez make it clear to her staff last year that there would be changes. He said she “clearly put her foot down.”

Still, resistance to change within the Sheriff’s Department was still evident as recently as April 2010, according to the consultants.

Frequent turnover in command positions was not helping matters, they said. One captain was moved four times in seven months, the consultants said. Such moves, they wrote, create a “severely weakened command and accountability continuum.”

In March, Valdez replaced her top jail commander with an assistant chief deputy, Marlin Suell. The consultants initially were concerned, but ultimately concluded that Suell “gets it.” But even Suell ran into resistance that threatened to undermine his efforts, according to Griffith’s reports.

Valdez said change, although difficult initially, is needed to make sure the right people are in the right positions.

Price said he wasn’t worried about the reluctance of some to cooperate. He blamed it on an entrenched “good ol’ boy” system within the agency.

“Anytime you have folks coming in from the outside, you’ll have people who have some trepidation,” he said. “She’s had to move some people around. I think she’s comfortable with personnel in place now.”

Key findings by a jail consultant hired to get county jails a passing grade by state inspectors:

•Sheriff’s officials were resistant to change and slow in getting key data to consultants. One report said the consultants were “perceived as a threat to the jail staff.”

•The Sheriff’s Department did not track key data like staff turnover and shift vacancies. The department was counting statistics rather than analyzing them.

•Sheriff’s commanders and jail guards had difficulty understanding that they must not be out of compliance with staffing rules for any reason at any time due to the possibility of an unannounced visit from state inspectors.

•Because the county’s criminal justice system was processing inmates slower than it had been months earlier, the jail population shot up by about 1,000 inmates this year.

•Jails were fully staffed on paper but poorly managed. Sheriff’s officials lacked a plan to cover unexpected staff shortages.

•The Sheriff’s Department did not hold its employees responsible for completing tasks or for repeated failures. Sheriff’s inspection teams produced reports without authors, for example.

•Fixing the jail required sheriff’s employees to change their view of the jail system as several different jails rather than one institution.

SOURCE: Carl R. Griffith and Associates


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1 Comment
10 years ago

What are the current federal cilvl irights lawsuits , that address the medical treatment of prisoners in the dallas county jail?