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Woman's Death in East Texas Jail Sparks Legislation

Beginning next year, jails like the one in Gregg County where Amy Lynn Cowling died could be required to tell state officials how many staff members leave their jobs every month. Experts say there likely is a correlation between high staff turnover rates and increased deaths.

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When Amy Lynn Cowling, a 33-year-old mother of three, died just after Christmas last year in the Gregg County Jail, two jailers were arrested and fired from the lockup in Longview, three others were fired and another resigned.

They were among the more than 40 percent of jail staff who quit or were fired each of the last two years at that facility, an alarmingly high turnover rate, according to jail conditions experts. And Cowling’s death was one of nine there in the last five years — a large number compared to jails of similar size across Texas.

Beginning next year, jails like the one in Gregg County could be required to tell state officials how many staff members leave their jobs every month. A bill by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, sparked by reports about Cowling’s death and other troubles at the Longview jail, is now on its way to Gov. Rick Perry. It would for the first time require the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to monitor jail turnover as a trigger for stronger oversight. “I think it will help put a spotlight on the problem and hopefully lead to more scrutiny,” Ellis said.

Autopsy reports show that Cowling died after a night of seizures as a result of withdrawal symptoms from Methadone and Xanax. Those drugs were prohibited under the jail doctor’s policy. Jail officials say they gave Cowling other medications and have argued they are not to blame for her death. But when Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano conducted an investigation after the incident, he found that jailers falsified observation logs on the night she died and on at least one other occasion.

Records from the sheriff’s department show that in 2009 and 2010, more than 40 percent of the jail's 167 employees either quit or were fired. Most of those who were fired were terminated because they violated department policies, Cerliano said. And on a number of occasions, jailers were fired because they falsified records.

Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, which advocates for improved jail conditions, said there seems to be a consistent correlation between high staff turnover rates and increased deaths at local jails. “A high turnover rate indicates that there’s probably understaffing and perhaps too-low pay and there’s pretty low morale,” Claitor said. “Getting Jail Standards to look at this and pay attention to this and use it as a marker for inspections could be a very positive step.”

Under the bill, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards — which oversees all 245 county jails statewide — would use staff turnover rates as one factor, along with numbers of deaths, escapes and inspection failures, to determine whether a jail is “at risk.” Adan Muñoz, executive director of the commission, said that when a jail is considered at risk, state officials visit more frequently and try to help administrators improve conditions. Adding turnover to the criteria, Muñoz said, will help the jail commission make more holistic evaluations. “It is a good tool for us,” he said.

Lisa Doolan, one of Cowling’s aunts, said she hoped the legislation would help prevent future jail deaths. But she said local officials should take responsibility for what she believes is their role in her niece’s death. “They didn’t watch her,” Doolan said. “She died on their watch.”

Gregg County Justice of the Peace B.H. Jameson said he has closed his investigation of Cowling’s death. While two autopsy reports have shown that she died because of seizures due to withdrawals, Jameson said it is not clear that jail staff committed any intentional wrongdoing. He ruled the manner of death in Cowling’s case undetermined. If there was any wrongdoing, he said, it will be for a jury to decide should Cowling’s family file a lawsuit over her death. “I see no reason to reopen or do anything on the case,” Jameson said.

The family was disappointed that Jameson closed the case and their attorney, Jarom Tefteller, said he is planning to file a lawsuit against Gregg County. In Cowling’s case, Tefteller said, the staff problems weren’t as much the problem as the county’s strict medical policy that prohibited Cowling from getting the medication she needed, which was in her purse at that jail. The jail commission does not regulate health care in jails but only ensures that the facilities have a health care plan. The details of that plan are left up to county officials.

“What would have prevented this is to say, ‘Hey, give these inmates ... their medication,’” Tefteller said. “That’s the main problem.”

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Courts Criminal justice Rodney Ellis