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Craig Morris: Why didn’t Dallas jailers get him help?

Aug 2nd, 2013 | Category: Dallas County, Lead Article

by Kevin Krause, Dallas Morning News

Craig Morris spent his last moments lying motionless on a cold cement floor until his labored breathing slowed and then stopped.

But the homeless alcoholic who was suffering from pneumonia was not on the streets. He was an inmate in Dallas County’s jail infirmary. Pleas from Morris’ cellmates were repeatedly ignored until jail officers and nurses eventually arrived to find Morris with no pulse, court records show. Paramedics pronounced him dead about 18 hours after he was booked into the jail.

His family is suing the county in a federal civil rights lawsuit, saying lack of proper medical care led to his 2009 death.

The county denies the allegation, and its attorneys tried to get the suit, filed in March 2011, dismissed. But the lawsuit cleared a major hurdle when a federal judge allowed it to go forward.

In his ruling in June, U.S. District Judge Ed Kinkeade said testimony showed that Dallas County jailers are not trained to recognize basic medical distress in inmates so that they can notify the medical staff.

Deliberate decision

The case reveals a potentially serious deficiency with Dallas County’s infirmary care: Evidence in the case shows that the county and Sheriff Lupe Valdez have deliberately decided not to train jailers to recognize medical problems even though state regulations require it.

Inmates must go through the jailers to get medical care, which is provided on site by Parkland Memorial Hospital employees.

The jail has already been the subject of years of intense federal scrutiny. The government ended its oversight of the jail system in late 2011 despite lingering concerns about infirmary care. The county is building a new $44 million infirmary, but it won’t be completed for at least another year.

Valdez did not comment. But her department released a statement that said she provided medical staff “throughout the jail, particularly in the infirmary, who were able to do medical assessments.”

Jail medical staff did assess Morris four times during his roughly 18 hours in the jail, and the nurse station was nearby when he was in the infirmary, the statement said.

“Therefore, any medical assessment training for jail personnel would be redundant and an unnecessary duplication of skills,” the statement said.

In legal filings, county lawyers said none of the jail officers could reasonably have known from looking at Morris that he was suffering from a deadly form of pneumonia. And they said the plaintiffs didn’t offer any evidence that the sheriff’s training was inadequate.

“That officers were not provided more training was not the moving force behind his death, particularly given that he saw trained nurses no less than four times,” Assistant District Attorney Dolena T. Westergard wrote.

Still no training

Morris died even as the county was making expensive court-ordered improvements to its jail system, the nation’s seventh-largest with about 6,000 inmates. But the lack of training continues today, Kinkeade said in his June 18 ruling.

Nurses who examined Morris, 45, while he was “detoxing” from alcohol withdrawal determined he didn’t need to go to the hospital, records show.

But inmates in Tank 1 with Morris said he was at various times confused, shaking and seemingly in pain. He was wheezing, hacking, breathing with difficulty, coughing up yellow-green phlegm, soiling himself and slumped over the shower floor.

Jailers did not give Morris’ nurse any information about his condition, the judge’s ruling said. There is no policy or training in the Dallas County jail system that would require the jailers to do so, Kinkeade wrote in his ruling.

When two jail officers noticed Morris lying on the floor an hour or more before his death, they kept walking, thinking that it “must have felt good to him,” the judge’s ruling said. There was nothing that required them to check on him, notify medical staff or do anything else, Kinkeade wrote.

Teresa Frye, a jail nurse, said under oath that she did not get any information about Morris’ condition from jailers at the time because of what she called a lack of “formal procedure.” Frye was dropped from the lawsuit this month after settling with Morris’ parents, Arthur and Beverly Morris, for an undisclosed sum.

Valdez said under oath that she didn’t want her jailers assessing prisoners’ medical needs because it would be “too much.”

“Valdez is ‘against’ training officers on how to observe an inmate’s interactions with cellmates to make any kind of assessment about them,” Kinkeade wrote. “Valdez does not want this type of training or responsibility for her officers because ‘for an assessment to happen by the officer, I’d have to have 100 more officers to do that. And the taxpayers would kill me.’”

‘Playing politics’

Susan Hutchison, the Morrises’ attorney, said she’s surprised that Valdez would prioritize the reaction of the taxpayers over inmates.

“We’re playing politics with people’s lives,” she said.

Kinkeade also wrote that a jury could find that one consequence of the county’s actions would be “a deprivation of medical care and thus a deprivation of constitutional rights.” He dismissed some of the Morrises’ other claims.

Hutchison said inmates rely on jailers to get proper care, but the county doesn’t train them to provide that link. “The inmates are left to flounder until someone happens along,” she said.

Hutchison said Morris was not checked on by officers for long periods despite undergoing alcohol withdrawal, which can be fatal. Jailers in Dallas County, she said, don’t make regular rounds in the infirmary like they should.

She said no one is asking jailers, who do receive CPR training, to know as much as paramedics or nurses. But she said they do need to know how to observe inmates and pass on what they see, just like other concerns they report. “It’s a complete system failure because nobody cares,” she said.

In Tarrant County

In Tarrant County, jailers are trained to observe inmates for health problems and report what they see to the medical staff, said Executive Chief Deputy Bob Knowles, considered a national expert on jail operations.

Tarrant County jailers, he said, know to look for “any medical crisis that may emerge” such as shortness of breath, chest pains, substance withdrawal and seizures.

“The jailers are the direct link between the inmate population and the medical staff,” Knowles said. “Without that, the inmates would not be able to get in touch with the medical staff.”

Inmates in a medical crisis, he said, can’t pick up a phone.

“Our officers literally are the 911 system for inmates when it comes to medical care,” Knowles said.

Travis County sheriff’s officials said their jailers are trained to identify signs of medical problems.

Lt. Anthony Aranda of the Travis County sheriff’s corrections division said a recent shift training exercise in the jail focused on the signs and symptoms of heatstroke and heat exhaustion.

“We routinely deal with chest pains, seizures, drug and alcohol withdrawals, depression and attempts at self-harm,” he said.

Dallas County has struggled to provide adequate medical and mental health care to its inmates for years, mostly because its infirmary is in a converted portion of the jail that is not set up like a hospital.

A federal inspection the same year that Morris died revealed a slow response to sick calls and a failure to track seriously ill inmates.

As Morris’ condition deteriorated at the jail, inmate Peter Iagmin said he tried to summon officers several times. Court records detail Morris’ final hours:

Iagmin said Morris had diarrhea and was vomiting. At one point, Morris soiled himself and crawled into the shower.

Iagmin said he called the guard station but no one came. He later recalled pleading with them into the intercom: “You have to come get him. He’s lost it and needs a nurse.”

Two jailers finally arrived. One found Morris to be “incoherent and unresponsive.” The other noticed he was shaking and unable to walk. That officer said Morris seemed “really out of it” and wondered why he wasn’t at Parkland.

The officers put Morris on his bunk and called a nurse. Morris was taken to the nurse station in a wheelchair. His vitals were checked and deemed to be stable. A nurse gave Morris a sedative. Two nurses said they didn’t notice anything seriously wrong with Morris, and he was returned to the cell.

But Morris ended up on the cell floor again. For 20 minutes, Iagmin and another inmate tried unsuccessfully to get an officer to respond.

Iagmin said he figured they were “done” dealing with Morris. He covered Morris with a blanket and got into his bunk as the sound of Morris’ breathing grew fainter.



December 2006: The Justice Department concludes after a lengthy investigation that dangerously inadequate health care contributed to the death and injury of numerous inmates in the Dallas County Jail system.

2007: The U.S. attorney general sues the county to enforce improvements at the jails. The county and the Justice Department reach a settlement under which the county agrees to make changes to how it provides medical and mental health care at the jails. The county must also submit to inspections by federal jail monitors every six months and build a jail infirmary.

August 2009: Inmate Craig Morris, a homeless alcoholic, dies in the jail infirmary of a serious form of pneumonia less than 24 hours after being booked in.

August 2010: After eight failed tries over seven years, the jail system finally passes state inspection and receives its certification from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

November 2011: The Justice Department announces the dismissal of its lawsuit against Dallas County over medical and mental health care and sanitation in the jail system.

March 2012: County commissioners vote to settle a jail neglect lawsuit for $550,000. In that civil rights suit, a former inmate said a debilitating stroke he suffered behind bars in 2007 was caused by jail staff not giving him his medication.

October 2012: Construction begins on a $44 million jail infirmary on three floors of the Lew Sterrett Justice Center’s North Tower.



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1 Comment
Jeanette Rivett
6 years ago

It’s been almost 7 years since my brother, Craig Morris, passed away. I often wonder if any changes have been made there in regards to the medical care…
Has Lupe Valdez decided to follow the law yet and train her guards the part she refuses to train them on, Medical? It is part of the training the state of Texas requires….