Valdez initiates interview in attempt to set record straight about her job performance; claims Dallas Morning News is skewing coverage
Voters’ distrust of everything connected to longtime Republican Sheriff Jim Bowle’s administration and the widespread fear of “business as usual” helped sweep Lupe Valdez into office in 2004, making her the first woman, the first Hispanic and the first lesbian to ever be elected sheriff of Dallas County.
Now, Sheriff Valdez is expressing some frustration of her own in an exclusive interview with the Dallas Voice. The interview, initiated at the request of the sheriff, marks a departure from her previous policy of trying to avoid media exposure rather than embracing it a practice for which she has been widely criticized.
“I am tired of being blamed for things that are not under my control,” she declared in the interview on Wednesday, April 25, at her office.
The Texas Jail Commission reported earlier this month that the Dallas County Jail had failed its annual inspection again this year, for the fourth year in a row. Inspectors with the U.S. Department of Justice were at the jail this week, and Valdez said Wednesday she expected their report, due Friday, April 27, to note a number of ongoing deficiencies at the jail.
But, the sheriff added, she also expected the DOJ report to acknowledge some vast improvements that have been made since she took office.
“They told me already that we are light years ahead of where they expected us to be,” Valdez said of the DOJ inspectors’ response. “The DOJ will give us their debriefing report on Friday, and I am pretty sure the report overall will be good. We’ve got more improvements to make, but we have made progress.”
Valdez said she spent her first two years in office struggling to make the improvements and changes necessary for the jail to meet required standards. But only recently have those efforts really begun to pay off as other county officials have started responding with the necessary assistance, she said.
“There has been a change of attitude in the Commissioners Court. Now, instead of just saying no, the commissioners are helping us find ways to solve these problems,” Valdez said. “It’s a new commissioners court [since the elections of November 2006]. We have a new district attorney, new judges, and we are making progress. I would say that most of the progress we have made has come in the last six months, since the elections last November.”
Despite that progress, Valdez said, the public continues to get a distorted view of the situation and what she, as sheriff, can do to make the necessary changes.
That is a result, she claims, of skewed coverage of her department by the Dallas Morning News.
“There are two things that people don’t understand I don’t have any control over at the jail,” Valdez said. “The first of those is medical care for the prisoners. The only control I have over that is providing escorts to take the inmates to their medical appointments.”
Robert W. Mong Jr., editor of The Dallas Morning News, did not immediately return a message left with his secretary.
The mechanics of providing those escorts has been complicated by a persistent shortage in staff, she said. The situation has improved since Dallas County constables agreed to help in escorting inmates to their medical appointments, and since the Commissioners Court voted to give the constables more of the resources they need to provide those escorts.
“As we have started publicly presenting these problems, they have been responding by giving us what we need to fix the problems,” she said of the commissioners court.
The second major problem over which Valdez said she has no control is maintenance at the jail.
“All I can do is make the requests for the repairs we need,” she said. “Right now, we have about 1,000 requests out for repairs. We send about 300 requests a day. And I am getting blamed because they [the county’s maintenance department] are backlogged.
“In fairness, since we started putting this out there publicly, they are rushing to get things done as quickly as possible,” she said.
Still some major problems persist. The smoke evacuation system at the jail is a prime example, Valdez said.
“When they [Texas Jail Commission officials] inspect the jail, they will take a smoke bomb, throw it into a cell and then time it to see how long it takes for the smoke evacuation system to clear the smoke out. If the smoke isn’t cleared within a set time, then we fail the inspection. Flat out, no questions, we fail,” she said.
She said the county has purchased a new smoke evacuation system for the jail, “but it will be at least a year before it can be installed. Again, that is maintenance issue. All I can do is report the problem and ask for it to be fixed.”
Until then, Valdez said, officers at the jail have to conduct visual exams of every cell every 15 minutes. That means, she explained, that an officer has to start at one end of the floor and walk by every cell, stopping to look in each one to make sure every inmate is okay, documenting their findings as they go.
“By the time they get to the other end, the 15 minutes has passed, and they have to start over again,” Valdez said. “We have 40 officers a day doing these 15 minute checks on the cell.”
And that, the sheriff said, ties into another of the jail’s major ongoing problems: There are not enough officers to do the job.
State standards say the jail must have a ratio of one officer for every 48 inmates. Valdez said when she first took office, that ratio at the Dallas County Jail was about 1 to 150.
“That makes for an extremely dangerous situation where a lot of things can go wrong. And a lot of things did go wrong,” Valdez said.
Under-staffing also is responsible for problems in the area of sanitation at the jail, the sheriff said, because inmates are the ones who perform those sanitation duties – such as cleaning the showers – and because any time an inmate is handling any tool or chemical that could be harmful to themselves or someone else, they have to be directly supervised by an officer.
“That means, if we have just one inmate in there cleaning the showers, there has to be an officer in there with them, and that means there is one less officer out there supervising the other inmates,” Valdez said.
“Things were really bad until I made the decision to have the officers come in on overtime. I am sure in six months I’ll get in trouble for all the over time. But I have to meet the mandates, and if I have to authorize overtime to meet the mandate, I will authorize overtime,” she said. “I am tired of waiting, and I am tired of taking the blame for all these things. I’d rather get yelled at for overtime and just get it done.
Overcrowding is another pressing problem, Valdez said, noting that the Dallas County jail is the seventh largest in the country in terms of inmate population. Some of that problem will be alleviated with the completion of a new addition to the jail, she said. But that will likely take another year.
Even the new addition won’t solve one of the factors in the overcrowding equation: It’s not just those serving out county sentences or awaiting trial or transport to a state or federal prison that are keeping the county jail’s cells overflowing, Valdez said. It’s those inmates who are mentally ill, homeless and indigently ill that push the inmate population over the limit.
“The county jail is not meant as a place to park these people, but that’s what it’s being used for,” she said. “We need to find some place other than the jail for these people.”
Valdez stressed that despite the ongoing problems, and despite the jail failing inspection for the fourth year in a row earlier this month, progress is being made.
The sheriff’s department, the commissioners court, the district attorney’s office and judges have begun working together in an unprecedented way to address the problems, the sheriff said. But still, Valdez said, she is tired of waiting and tired of taking the blame for problems beyond her control.
“The Sheriff’s Department is more than just the jail. We have our horse patrol that helps with search and rescue. We have the CID, forensics, the cold case unit and the investigations unit. And there are so many areas we’re doing very well in but all you ever hear about is the jail,” Valdez said.
“We’re making the changes we need to make,” she added. “And I can assure you the cultural mindset in this department is changing. It’s just going to take time.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, April 27, 2007.