1/6This photo shows trash that inmates had lodged in the metal casing covering the overhead cell door mechanism that county facilities staff removed during repairs in mid-February.(Dallas County)
When the Dallas County Jail failed its annual state inspection this year, regulators cited four shortcomings. One that opened our eyes was a security breach that showed around 40 prison doors in the North Tower were unusable. They didn’t work. And that’s where the Dallas County Sheriff‘s Department houses its maximum-security inmates. A state official said the jammed cell doors opened into a common room.
In the eyes of state inspectors, the inmates ensured that the door hardware remained clogged.
“Inspectors at the scene attempted to verify repairs to the door and observed inmates tampering with a cell door with contraband, rendering the door unusable,” reads the inspection report.
County documents we recently obtained reveal that the problem was far worse than even the details of this report. Two days after state inspectors unexpectedly arrived at the jail on Feb. 14, the sheriff’s department sent county facility staff a list of more than 500 ‘inoperative’ gates, according to an email from the county. obtained through an open records request.
County facilities staff serviced 504 doors in the North Tower on February 16 and 17 and found that only eight of those doors had any real mechanical issues. The others malfunctioned because the inmates figured out how to jam them so they wouldn’t close securely.
The sliding mechanisms of the cell doors are mounted above the head, protected by a metal casing. County photos we obtained show that inmates found ways to wedge an assortment of objects into this space, including rags, plastic wrappers, playing cards and even books to jam the mechanism and render the doors unusable.
A photo shows a cell-lined hallway covered in handfuls of paper and other trash that county staff removed from pens above the doors.
On February 18, the last day of the state inspection, a county facilities department official sampled 96 doors that had been repaired less than 18 hours earlier and found that a fifth of those doors did not work. would lock down more, according to one county. E-mail.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has yet to return to re-inspect the Dallas County Jail to see if it is back in compliance. But Brandon Wood, the commission’s executive director, recently visited the North Tower and told us that the sheriff’s department and county staff showed they had fixed the faulty doors.
Sheriff Marian Brown gave us a tour of the North Tower last week and told us that her department had fixed the door tampering issue. Brown said she and her bosses had established a full press, roaming the prison towers daily and redirecting sworn officers to assist jailers and limit the possession of contraband. The county facilities department also assigned more personnel to fix the doors.
In March, Brown began sending rule-breaking inmates to a “restriction zone,” which houses inmates who have lost privileges available to the rest of the prison population, such as watching television.
Brown said the measures were working. As of last week, there were only three doors to repair in the North Tower, and all of them were mechanical issues unrelated to tampering, according to Brown and county staff.
The pandemic continues to weigh heavily on the Dallas County Jail, where the population this week had topped 5,850 – the highest number of inmates at one point since October and well below the jail’s average population of 5,000. detained three years ago. But even with these constraints, it is the duty of the sheriff to ensure the safety of the prison for the prisoners and for the people who work there. Although Brown took steps to fix the door issues, there should never have been 500 defective doors in the first place.
Brown attributed the tampering with the door to inmate misbehavior and a relaxed culture at the prison that she said developed over a long period. She called it a case of ‘broken windows’, referring to the police theory that small violations that go unaddressed will encourage more serious lawlessness. As an example, the sheriff pointed to a group of inmates with their hands clasped behind their backs, walking in single file as they were escorted down a hallway. A few months ago, inmates would have moved without keeping a line, Brown said.
There was no teeth in the prison rules, so Brown said she set out with her staff to establish the repercussions of bad behavior.
Detention officers can check cells for contraband at any time. After the jail was inspected in February, Sheriff’s Department personnel began checking the North Tower for unauthorized objects and blocking cell-by-cell doors daily, Brown said. Inmates now read books and postal mail on tablets provided by the prison.
The sheriff said his staff posted signs warning inmates they would face disciplinary action for tampering with the gates. After a disciplinary hearing, inmates can receive a number of penalties, including the temporary loss of visitation rights or the ability to buy snacks from the commissioner.
“It’s a committed effort,” Brown said. “It’s just not something at the moment.”
When asked in retrospect if she would have done something different regarding prison management, Brown said no, pointing to the pandemic. More detainees are staying longer due to backlogs and delays in transfers to the state prison system and mental health hospitals. As of Tuesday, 722 inmates were awaiting transfer to a state criminal justice facility and 406 were awaiting psychiatric beds.
We have no doubt that the pandemic has made a difficult job all the more difficult. But the pandemic cannot be an excuse for lax oversight. It’s a small consolation that the sheriff’s department discovered the hundreds of defective doors during a check and not from an inmate attack, as has been the case at other correctional facilities. It was still an intolerable danger.
The prison has thousands of doors and door maintenance is routine. Brown said no one noticed that door tampering was a systemic problem at the North Tower. It’s his job to make sure someone notices. When it comes to running the jail, the responsibility lies with the sheriff.