.Controversy over the “new ’ Dallas County jail began even before it was built. The controversy escalated in 1972 when Federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes entered her now-ffcmous order requiring the Commissioners Court to construct a new fa-cility. Does the county need the new fa- cility Judge Hughes has ordered.” Are Dallas taxpayers being asked to build a ’ ’country club for criminals,” as some opponents of the new jail – notably on the Commissioners Court – have said’.’ To examine these and other questions. D Magazine contributing editor Tom Ste-phenson and senior editor John Merwin spent several days at the Dallas County Jail, interviewing inmates and jail officials. This is their report on the kind of life inmates live in the Dallas County Jail.
Home again. Billy Ray Hinson is home again after less than a year on the streets, out “in the tree world.” Not that he’d rather be biding his time in the Dallas County Jail. He sure as hell wouldn’t. But time behind bars comes with the territory. You knock off a bank, rob a 7-Eleven or blow somebody’s head off and you probably won’t get caught, but maybe you will. Now and then cops are hurt while enforcing the law. Occasionally cons are caught while breaking it.
Having just made a last phone call to his sister, Hinson is shuffled up to the 11 th floor of the county courthouse. the men’s floor of the jail. The familiar odors hit him – the reek of unwashed bodies and smoke from last night’s fires, used to heat coffee. Long ago the smell has become a part of the jail’s fabric, entrenching itself in the building’s walls and floors.
A steel door slams shut behind Billy Ray as he heads toward Tank 11-S-N, for the next few months, at least, his home. Tank 11-S-N is a large cell area containing 30 inmates, or as prisoners prefer to be called, convicts. Because of a new screening process. Billy Ray winds up in a tank with a number of other repeat felony offenders, men convicted of felonies ranging from murder to robbery. Some are awaiting trial while others are involved in some other sort of legal process.
Billy Ray is re-entering a society he knows well because he has spent 24 of his 47 years behind bars. The first order of business is finding out who the tank spokes-Tian. is – a straw boss elected from the Sank. As luck would have it, the spokesman turns out to be Doc. a habitual criminal Billy Ray had known some 30 years before. Doc invites Billy Ray to bunk near him on a lower bunk, which holds much more status than an upper bunk.
’”Got some coffee?’ Billy Ray asks. Doc says yes. he does, and pulls out a packet of instant coffee and an emptied shaving cream tube. The tube has been reamed out with a broom handle, cleaned with scalding water and its end folded shut. Doc fills the tube with fresh water and heats it with a burning wad of rolled up newspaper. Within a couple of minutes the water is boiling. Doc pours it into a cup. adds the instant coffee and hands it to Billy Ray. The two talk about old times and what they’ve been up to since serving time together.
Doc talks about the other cons in 11-S-N. the men who have elected him tank spokesman. The position of tank spokesman is a peculiar one. It is recognition by men who are imprisoned for having committed anarchic, criminal acts, that without some sort of enforcer in their own tank, anarchy will prevail. Although anarchy may be fine in the free world, it is totally unacceptable in jail society.
Take the jailhouse thief, for instance. There is no more hated character in the cellblocks, because since a man can’t lock up his possessions, he must be able to trust his tankmates. Jailhouse thieves are summarily beaten, then turned over to the guard with an explanation that “He fell off his bunk” or “He slipped in the shower.” “I’ve seen more men whipped by a bunk or a shower than I care to imagine,” says a guard.
Billy Ray’s jailhouse world is filled with a cast of characters which ironically mirrors occupations in free society, a surprising affirmation that free enterprise is alive and well in the Dallas County jail. The cellblocks are filled with convict storekeepers, loan sharks, gamblers, tobacconists and laundry operators, all operating in a microcosm of the free world.
Kingpin in this oddball world is the tank spokesman, or “boss” as he used to be called. He’s usually elected by his fellow cons and remains in power until he is transferred out of the tank or is overthrown and run out.
Doc is an easy-going tank spokesman, doing little more than keeping the peace and maintaining a good relationship with the guard. Other tank spokesmen might decide which television programs are watched (a major decision in most tanks), use the telephone first or eat any extra food. Doc has a simple deal with the guard, or “captain” as he is called. Doc keeps the convicts in line for the captain and the captain listens to Doc’s pleas on behalf of his tankmates. The guards, who can’t watch everything in the jail, appreciate the help.
For Doc, keeping the cons in line means playing along with jailhouse rules when it’s appropriate to play along. When a meal is delivered to the tank, Doc knows how many trays of food are coming in and he knows how many spoons and cups came in with them. If the guard finds one less spoon coming out, he’ll check with Doc, who will find the missing spoon and find it fast. Doc, who’s been around enough to know, figures if that spoon doesn’t appear shortly there’ll be a shakedown of the whole tank which could yield all sorts of contraband. It isn’t worth the risk.
Like most inmates, Billy Ray likes to smoke. He doesn’t mind hand-rolled cigarettes, which are considerably less expensive than regular brands. Once a day the commissary cart comes around and he buys one pack of Bugler tobacco and one pack of Tops tobacco, blending them to suit his taste. He gives the two packs and accompanying cigarette papers to the tank’s tobacconist, a jailhouse character who supports his own smoking habit by rolling cigarettes for others. The tobacconist rolls about 50 cigarettes from two packs of tobacco. He cuts the two packs in half, puts 20 rolled cigarettes in each and slides one half of the pack over the other, much like a cigarette case. Lighting a match, he melts cellophane around the edges, sealing two packs of fresh cigarettes, with ten left over for himself as payment for his work.
There’s not much to do in jail except watch television, write letters, play poker or try to make it to the 8th floor jail law library to research your case. After breakfast Billy Ray lights up a cigarette and begins to think how he wound up here today when only yesterday he was living a normal life in the free world.
Billy Ray’s problems didn’t start yesterday. They began a long time ago, when he and a few friends decided they wanted to learn how to drive. So Billy Ray, age nine, and his friends stole a ’36 Ford from in front of a Grand Prairie theater and went for a joy ride. They wrecked the car, were caught, and Billy Ray was shipped off to the Texas State Boys School at Gatesville.
Serving in the army from 1945 to 1950 kept him out of hot water, and in fact he left the service as a buck sergeant. But no sooner was he out of the army than Billy Ray was robbing businesses, which got him two years in Huntsville.
Nineteen fifty-five was a big year for Billy Ray. He and some companions held up 16 banks from Oklahoma to Oregon and were doing just fine until one day in Kansas City. Police showed up outside the bank while Billy was inside robbing it. Surrounded, he took the woman president of the bank hostage and marched her out the door, then made a break for it alone, running up an alley that had a brick wall at the end. As if that wasn’t enough, he soon found out that his hostage had been Georgia Neese Gray, a few years earlier President Truman’s treasury secretary. Her signature was on the bills in Billy Ray’s pocket, part of the $24,000 he had stolen from the bank. When Billy Ray was a kid they called him lucky, but damned if he knew why.
This time it was off to Leavenworth with six concurrent sentences ranging up to 50 years. After 12 years in Leavenworth Billy Ray was transferred to the Marion, Illinois, federal penitentiary where inmates from Alcatraz were sent when The Rock was shut down. He was discharged from Marion in 1975, sent straight back to Dallas to stand trial on a robbery charge which had been pending for 20 years. Billy Ray pled guilty and was off to the Texas Department of Corrections in Huntsville.
After a year he was freed from Huntsville and returned to Dallas to work as a remodeler, which he did until one night last summer, when the police pulled him over on R.L. Thornton Freeway. They came at his car with guns drawn, told him to get out and hit the pavement. Police searched Billy Ray and his car, then informed him he was wanted for murder.
Billy Ray was hauled downtown to the jail, television lights glaring, where he was told his bond had already been set at $150,000. With a record like his, there was no way he would get out on bond as do most offenders.
Taken up to the seventh floor, Billy Ray was examined carefully to ensure that he wasn’t hurt. If a jail inmate were to die from some undetected condition it would be an enormous embarrassment to the sheriff, and the press would pounce on it. He was moved into a “holdover” tank with a dozen other inmates, waiting for many hours before going through jail identification procedures. Finally he was photographed and fingerprinted and a card was made out with his record. Classified as a habitual felon, he was sent to a shakedown room where he stripped and was thoroughly searched for contraband. There he received a pair of white jail coveralls and slip-on tennis shoes. Fortunately he had his own underwear and socks. If he didn’t, Billy Ray simply wouldn’t have any – the jail doesn’t issue them. After making a phone call to tell his sister what had happened, Billy Ray shuffled off to Tank 11-S-N.
When Billy Ray hit the tank he looked like a pro. He knew what to do, who to ask tor and how to haruflenimself – by all indications he knew the jailhouse game. It’s little things that reveal inexperience, a quality one doesn’t want to show in the jail. Shortly after Billy Ray had arrived at 11-S-N, another, younger inmate arrived.
Tankmates in 11-S-N were sure this newest prisoner hadn’t been around. It was the way he looked – scared. He buttoned his coveralls to the neck and had no idea how to fix his bunk and even laid his county-issued mattress on the concrete floor.
“Got any money?” asked one of the older cellmates.
“A little,” answered the young man.
“Want to play some poker?” replied the older cellmate.
“Not right now,” said the young man.
“Hey,” warned the cellmate, “You’d better bring some money over here and play some poker.”
“Well,” said the new arrival, “I guess I can play for a little while.’
Immediately the tankmates pegged the young man a “weakling,” because he allowed himself to be bullied into a poker game. A veteran would have ignored the threat. A few months back the young man might have been the target of sexual assaults, but with all the limelight thrown upon the jail in recent months, it’s unlikely the convicts would want to pay the severe penalty for such an attack. However sexual abuse does still go on in the jail.
Instead the young man was appointed to the position of tank “Maytag,” the lowest position in the jailhouse society. Maytags do tankmates’ laundry, washing their socks and underwear by hand in the tank’s basin. It’s a degrading “feminine” job, usually forced upon the weakest member of the tank, or sometimes done for hire by a self-admitted weakling who runs a laundry service to pay for his cigarettes. “I believe I’d rather give up smoking than wash another man’s socks and underwear,” says Billy Ray, a heavy smoker.
Occasionally Billy Ray joins the tank poker game, a common diversion. Before tanks got televisions poker was almost perpetual. Some inmates won enough money to send it home to relatives while others lost all of their money and continued playing for whatever they had left – food, clothes, etc. Betting is usually organized by the tank gambler, who might have been a bookie in the free world. He organizes card games and often serves as the house, lending money to players, much like a loan shark. He might lend a player a dollar and charge 25 cents interest if the money is paid back within a few days, or add another quarter’s interest if he has to wait a week.
The gambler also organizes pools on football games, selling squares just like in a free world office pool. Squares sell from a dime up to about a dollar, depending upon the pool. If he doesn’t sell all of the squares in his tank, the gambler passes his sheet to another tank, hoping to sell them there. If he fails, the gambler is stuck with all of the blank squares. Unless he wins on one of those squares, the gambler can actually lose money. More than likely he’ll win, and share the proceeds with the tank spokesman for the privilege of doing business in the tank.
Surprisingly little dice shooting occurs in the jail, even though on the streets it’s a very common form of gambling. Although playing cards is allowed in jail, shooting dice isn’t, because for some reason crap games have a way of turning into fist fights. Still some dice shooting goes on, with dice cut out of a bar of soap and marked with a pen. Instead of shooting the dice against the wall, however, they are rolled on a blanket or mattress cover, so the edges won’t chip. If a guard spots a dice game eventually he will confiscate the dice, taking care not to interrupt a critical roll.
Some jailhouse gamblers make a pretty good living plying their trade. Not long ago a trusty managed to talk his way into a job waxing jail floors. While circulating through the corridors he organized the entire jail into betting pools and made so much money he sent it home weekly to relatives.
Of all the jailhouse characters in Billy Ray’s world the most common is the merchant prince-the storekeeper. Although a commissary cart comes around once a weekday, inmates need cigarettes, stationery or candy on weeknights or weekends. The tank storekeeper fills this off-hour need, but just like at 7-Eleven, fora handsome markup.
He operates remarkably like a free world storekeeper, requiring money to stock his inventory and to finance credit sales. Prices are negotiable and vary from store to store, however in Billy Ray’s tank the markup is relatively small. A pack of cigarettes off the commissary cart, for instance, 60 cents. From the tank storekeeper a pack costs 65 cents cash or 70 cents on credit. The credit markup covers bad debts occasionally incurred when an inmate is transferred to another tank or bonded out of jail.
Like a free world convenience store, the tank storekeeper’s highest volume items are cigarettes and candy. On weekends, which is visitation time, cosmetic items are big sellers, especially hair care products. “’I’ve seen a store so large that the guy operating it even had his hours posted,” says one Dallas County convict. “He even hired help.” Like the gambler, the storekeeper usually gives the tank spokesman a “franchise” payment for operating in the tank.
There are several officially sanctioned occupations which give a trusty the opportunity to make substantial money. The two best are shineman and barber. The jailhouse shineman has a stand in the courthouse basement and has a steady stream of customers – lawyers, judges, bondsmen and sheriffs deputies. He charges 50 cents a shine and generally gets a tip on top of that. The barber operates in a two-chair jailhouse barber shop, cutting hair for 40 cents a head. The current barber is licensed, having been trained at bar-bering while serving time in Huntsville.
The newsman sells three papers, the Dallas News, Times Herald and Post Tribune, the last a black community newspaper. He places an order for newspapers each day, leaving his money. He buys the News and Herald for a nickel and sells them on the cellblocks for a dime. Although most cons aren’t avid newspaper readers, they do enjoy reading about the antics of the Commissioners Court in responding to the edicts of Federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes.
“Sarah T.,” as she is popularly known around the jail, has had a profound effect on day-to-day life in the jail. Her name is bandied about often in references ranging from how “wonderful” she is to a guard’s occasional retort to a complaining prisoner, “Tell it to Sarah T.”
Whether one be a fan or foe of Judge Hughes, there is little doubt that the level of violence in the jail has greatly subsided because of her one-woman crusade to improve conditions in the county jail. In 1972 Judge Hughes ordered the county commissioners to upgrade the jail, citing a state law requiring a “safe and suitable” jail. At the time the jail was badly overcrowded. Prisoner riots and even an occasional escape were not uncommon.
The commissioners have spent more than $100,000 fruitlessly appealing her order. After former County Judge Lew Sterrett was defeated in 1974, the commissioners switched their tactic from fighting to stalling, which they have been doing ever since. Judge Hughes is determined to bring the matter to a showdown, having recently ordered the commissioners to select a jail site and build a new jail. Facing retirement, the 80-year-old judge is dead set on having her way after five years of haggling.
Her wishes are being carried out by Sheriff Carl Thomas, elected last fall, and his chief jailer Lt. Bob Collins. Thomas and Collins have done much to follow the spirit of Judge Hughes’ orders, an attitude widely recognized and appreciated by the inmates. They have, for example, expanded visitation hours and are expanding the size of the prisoners’ favorite research facility, the jail law library.
Largely because of Judge Hughes’ pressure, televisions have been installed in every tank, relieving a great deal of the monotony prisoners previously faced. Inmates also get to use the telephone reasonably often, in fact a few weeks ago Billy Ray used it on three consecutive days, although he is unable to telephone his wife or son. She is imprisoned in the women’s jail, one floor below, and his son is serving a 95 year robbery sentence in Huntsville.
Television and the telephone have broken much of the jailhouse tension brought about by the prisoners’ isolation from the outside world. Billy Ray is particularly lucky, because he is in a tank which faces a small south window. Although the jail’s original windows were translucent, Tank 11-S-N is fortunate because after the original window was broken out it was replaced with a plexiglass window. “I can see Channel 8 and the Dallas News,” he says, “and that’s really nice. You have no idea what being pinned up without being able to see the free world can do to you.’’
The amount of jailhouse fighting is incredible. Sometimes it’s merely controlled sparring, or as one guard calls it, chest punching. “You can walk around and see them punching each other,” he said. “No punches are allowed above the neck or below the belt. And they aren’t just playing.”
Other times it’s more serious. “The inmates just love a good fight,” says a prisoner. “They’ll watch and cheer. I’ve seen them fight with shanks [homemade knives] and with their fists until they drop.” Another convict recalls several men in a cell stretching another inmate’s leg across a table and breaking his kneecap, an act which pales beside some of the sexual assaults which used to go on in the jail.
Much of the sexual abuse has stopped, largely because of a new “classification” system instigated by Judge Hughes’ orders. The system screens prisoners as they enter the jail, presumably ensuring that a first time offender isn’t cast into a tank with lifetime felons who might gang up on the “inexperienced” convict. Sheriff Carl Thomas’ administration will prosecute sexual offenders.
“A few years ago when I came in” says a convict, “they put everybody in together, from 17 to 70. I was in with a couple of guys doing those 1001-year stretches. You throw in a fresh looking 18-year-old and he has no chance.”
Previously some of the new inmates most likely to be abused sexually were residents of the wealthier Dallas neighborhoods. “When people like that got thrown into jail, it could be tough,” said one inmate, himself a Highland Park alum. “They came in here from a world where they were in command. All the people they commanded – the shine man, the gas station attendant – those are the people who are in charge of jail society. They got their revenge and still do – don’t think they still don’t either.”
Although prisoners are likely to be prosecuted for sexual abuses, they are far less likely to be prosecuted for scuffling with a guard. Guards prefer to handle the problem themselves so other inmates can see the price one must pay for assaulting anofficer. “If a con jumps a guard,” says one officer, “he can do a lot of damage before we can get to him. But I promise you by the time three or four guards put the inmate back in that tank, he’s going to be hurt a lot worse. It’s the only thing we can do to stop it.”
Generally the relationship between the guards and inmates is one of cat and mouse, each side playing mind games with the other. “The guards might take a letter written to your girlfriend and one written to your wife,” one convict says, “and switch envelopes. They’ve done that twice in our tank.” Or, some prisoners claim, the guards hold back incoming mail or open privileged correspondence between an inmate and his lawyer, the press, and so on.
Without admitting specific mental punishments the guards do say they feel frustrated in their role. “They say you have all this authority,” one says, “but they really don’t let you do much.
“We’re really not much in control – the prisoners have the run of this place,” he continued. “At Huntsville a prisoner who cuts up can be made to work. They can make him pick 200 pounds of cotton. If he won’t work they don’t feed him. These guys in the county jail do whatever they want.”
It wasn’t always that way in Dallas County. Walking the catwalks at the old county jail, a block from the new courthouse, one can see the old “sweat boxes” -a reminder that things used to be a lot tougher. Prisoners who cut up under the late Sheriff Bill Decker were stripped and put into sweat boxes, steel compartments shaped like standing coffins. A powerful light shone on the prisoner, making him sweat, while a trusty reached in and mopped away the perspiration. Although the old jail houses regular prisoners today, its cells have been home to a veritable Who’s Who in Texas Crime – among others, Raymond Hamilton, Buck and Clyde Barrow and Jack Ruby.
Oddly enough the old county jail is far better built than the new one. The design is superior and so is the steel. The old jail even has a gym on the roof, unlike the new jail which has no recreational facilities. Years ago the gym housed the gallows and a death row cell, thirteen steps from the hangman’s noose.
Billy Ray Hinson’s stay in the Dallas County jail is likely to be a long one. His trial on charges of robbing a liquor store comes up in a few weeks and after that he still faces another robbery charge and a murder indictment. Hinson may have already spent his last days in the free world.
“I’m not sure how I got into all of this trouble,” he says. “Maybe because it’s the people I run around with. I’ll tell you this, if I get out of here I’m leaving Dallas. I always seem to get in trouble around here.” Searching his sympathetic eyes and toothy grin makes it difficult not to believe Billy Ray, but if one considers his long record, odds are that if he gets out this time Billy Ray will find his way back again.
Billy Ray is glad to tell his story, glad to have someone to talk with for a couple of hours. Until recently he could have visitors on Sunday only and talk to each visitor only 30 minutes. Under Thomas and Collins visitation hours are being expanded to seven days a week including weekday evenings, Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning.
The visitation facilities at the jail are outrageous. Convicts attempt to talk through perforated steel walls. Two feet either side of them other convicts are attempting to do the same thing. The result is a shouting match among the prisoners on one side of the detention wall and visitors on the opposite side. Judge Hughes’ order directs correction of this most flagrant design problem.
Aside from personal visits and the telephone, Billy Ray has one other way to communicate outside his tank, by an ingenious method called the “soul bowl.” The county jail has an unusual plumbing system which allows the soul bowl network to operate.
If a male prisoner on the 11 th floor wants to talk to a female prisoner on the 10th floor, he passes word through an 11th floor trusty to tell the elevator operator that he wants to talk to his girlfriend at a specific time. The elevator operator will tell a 10th floor trusty who in turn passes the word to the girlfriend.
At the appointed hour Billy Ray flushes his commode, then scoops the inrushing water out of his bowl, giving him a straight shot down the pipes to the 10th floor. The jail commodes don’t have water traps beneath the bowls, as most commodes do. At the same time the female prisoner flushes her commode and also scoops out the inrushing water. Billy Ray sticks his head into the bowl, drapes himself with a blanket to block outside noises and starts chatting. With nothing but air between his commode and the one below, it’s like a telephone conversation. As with a party line, convicts on either side of his tank can clear their commodes and eavesdrop, although it’s not often done. Even the guards have occasionally eavesdropped on the soul bowl network, but haven’t found out anything worthwhile.
As ingenious as it is, the soul bowl is not without its disadvantages. Naturally an inmate can’t see who he’s talking with and occasionally an inmate decides the voice is so sweet that he wants to meet the owner. Once a male inmate decided that his soul bowl mate sounded so nice he wanted to marry her. A time was set for the wedding and at the appointed hour the male inmate was taken down to meet his bride, who turned out to be a 300 pounder. He called off the wedding.
Sometimes the 10th and 11 th floor inmates manage to string a line between themselves. Each floor tears up strips of cloth, perhaps from a mattress cover, until each floor has a string about 65 feet long. Then simultaneously they begin flushing their commodes, feeding the lines down the pipes. At a point below the 10th floor the lines become entangled. They can be pulled back and forth from one floor to the other, allowing men and women to attach objects to the line and pass them back and forth. Money and cigarettes travel along the line and one morning guards were suprised to see what else had traveled the line during the night. Male prisoners were wearing what they had pulled up the pipes – panties and bras.
As comic as some aspects of life in jail may be, there are no words to express its boredom. Aside from watching television, playing poker, fighting or occasionally talking on the telephone, there’s little to do. Most of Billy Ray’s tankmates spend as much time as they can in the jail law library “researching their cases.” trying to find some way to untangle themselves from the long arm of the law.
It is unlikely that Billy Ray will find such a way, and presuming he doesn’t, he may face a murder trial. “I don’t think they’ve got a case against me,” he says, “and I sure as hell won’t cop a plea and take some time in Huntsville.”
He says a few more words, mostly directed at what he thinks is the unfairness in Henry Wade’s jury selection process. After two hours the small interview tank, about the size of two telephone booths, is filled with smoke.
Billy Ray says thanks for coming by. “Maybe you can come back.” A guard opens the solid steel door behind him, takes Billy Ray into a corridor and searches him. Then the guard opens another heavy steel door, something like the door to a meat locker. Billy Ray steps through it and disappears from sight without looking back. The door slams shut, echoing be bind him.
HOW BAD IS THE JAIL?
Dallas County is soon going to build a new jail – even though the jail we have now is only 11 years old. Eleven years and already obsolete. How did it happen?
Planning for the Dallas County Courthouse, with the jail on top, began in the early Sixties. As ground-breaking time drew near, the construction budget was cut considerably – perhaps resulting in the jail’s inadequacies. Sheriff Bill Decker thought so. He complained bitterly about needed additional security considerations and demanded change after change before finally moving prisoners into the jail. 18 months after the courthouse opened in 1966.
Building a jail on top of the courthouse seemed like a good idea at the time. Prisoners would have great difficulty escaping from atop a building and they would be an elevator’s ride from most of the criminal courtrooms. It didn’t turn out to be such a grand idea, however, because the prisoners quickly realized they could light fires which were difficult to fight 12 floors above the street. They also could plug commodes and flood the upper floors of the courthouse, sending water streaming down below into the district attorney’s office-a delightful revenge for inmates.
Essentially there are two problems with the Dallas County jail. First, there is inadequate supervision of inmates, which encourages anything from sexual attacks to a steady stream of contraband smuggled into the jail. Plenty of sexual attacks can go unnoticed and last year a cellblock murder went undetected for some time.
Contraband flows in to prisoners in various ways, many of which could be detected if the jail were better staffed. Drugs are the most common contraband, ranging from heroin slipped inside incoming clothing to LSD planted under a postage stamp on an incoming letter. “Those big commemorative stamps have made lots of people high up here,” says one con.
Prisoners also manage to devise an imaginative array of weapons from whatever they can find in the jail. A-mong the most common weapons are knives made from parts of a wash bucket or fashioned out of a razor blade implanted into a toothbrush handle.
The other severe criticism of the jail relates to its design, and in one case, the quality of building materials. Several years ago an inmate of the new jail was caught in an escape attempt after he had cut a hole, about a foot square, through a steel ceiling. No prisoner has ever been able to do such a thing in the county’s old jail.
Dallas County purchased its jail steel from Southern Steel Company of San Antonio, a major supplier of detention steel. Southern Steel has been in business for 74 years. It is family owned and thus no public financial statements are released, but estimates are that Southern Steel sold about eight million dollars worth of jail steel last year. The company has prospered recently under its president, Hull Youngblood, a member of the family owning Southern Steel.
The interesting fact about Hull Youngblood is that until June 13, he was vice chairman of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. In what seemed a blatant conflict of interest, Youngblood regulated the very business Southern Steel supplied. Until June 13 Youngblood repeatedly denied he had a serious conflict of interest. Youngblood’s resignation came after it became obvious that Southern Steel would bid on a Lubbock jail project.
The commission, created several years ago, has wide ranging authority over Texas jails, particularly over jail construction and enforcement of jail standards. It will play a very active role in approving practically every significant detail in the design of the proposed Dallas County jail.
The jail crisis had its beginnings about five years ago when Dallas Legal Services sued the county commissioners in federal court. The suit charged that conditions in the Dallas County jail were unsafe and Federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes agreed, ruling that the commissioners must upgrade the jail. The past years have been filled with continual bickering between the commissioners and Judge Hughes.
Finally Judge Hughes appointed a special master to investigate conditions in the jail and report back to her last March.
Special master Charles Campbell wrote a lengthy analysis of the jail’s shortcomings, including the following:
?The jail is of “the worst imaginable” design, preventing adequate visual supervision of prisoners.
?Prisoners are visually isolated from the outside world and isolated from contact with the prison staff.
?Visitation hours are limited to one day a week. (This is being corrected.)
?Cells are overcrowded and dirty.
? Food is often served cold.
?Privileged mail is frequently opened by guards.
●Inmates have to wash their own socks and underwear in tank basins, and can be given only two small cups of soap powder a week, per tank. The soap problem is caused by narrow drain pipes which are easily clogged by suds, an atrocious design error.
●There is practically no exercise program in the new jail.
●Selection and supervision of trusties are disorganized.
●There is an inadequate classification system to separate hardened criminals from first time offenders. (This is currently being corrected.)
●There is a lack of training for guards.
●The prisoners don’t have enough chances to use the telephone. (This is being corrected.)
The commissioners are moving toward selecting a new jail site, probably one away from downtown. This time the architects will be working closely with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, ensuring that the new jail doesn’t turn into a fiasco as the current jail has.