Hospital Guard Tab Rises over Concern with Forensic Patients

Dallas County thought it could save money by hiring a private security company to guard prisoners receiving care at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Instead, it's spending more and getting less.

There were problems with the small security contractor -- the lowest bidder -- from the start. Greer's Investigations and Security has been unable to provide enough security guards to handle the job because most of them didn't have the necessary state certification, according to county officials.

As it has tried to cover the staffing shortages, the Sheriff's Department has incurred overtime costs as high as $400,000 in a six-month period, while Greer is being paid about $800,000 a year.

The problems are not limited to money.

Since Greer's contract began in October 2003, at least eight prisoners have escaped from Parkland, according to the Sheriff's Department. In many cases, prisoners either walked out of the hospital or escaped after asking permission to use the restroom.

All have been recaptured, a sheriff's spokesman said.

Billy Greer, owner of the company, declined through his attorney to comment.

He also did not respond to questions e-mailed to his attorney.

The most recent escape last month prompted county Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield to call for ending Greer's contract.

The contract requires Greer to provide licensed guards and says violation of the terms is ground for termination. It also says that any increased cost to the county arising from a breach of contract shall be paid to the county upon demand.

The company has been the subject of complaints. A former chief deputy compiled those complaints and turned them over to county staff members in 2004. But when the chief deputy retired, her report hit a dead-end, and county staffers have not been able to locate copies of it.

Despite those problems, county commissioners have twice followed the sheriff's recommendation and renewed Greer's contract, first in September 2004 and again in October.

Mr. Mayfield and County Judge Margaret Keliher said they didn't know about the complaints and escapes when they voted to renew the contract. Mr. Mayfield said he will insist such information is included in future briefings before the court is asked to renew a contract.

"This information was kept from us," he said. "I think they've [Greer] proven they can't do it."

The problem is, the Sheriff's Department is dealing with staffing shortages of its own -- 51 vacancies in detention alone -- and cannot take over the service if the contract is ended, Deputy Chief Edgar McMillan Jr. said.

'Learning experience'

If Greer has not improved its performance by this fall, Chief McMillan said, his department will recommend options that include rebidding the contract and creating a separate hospital guard division within the Sheriff's Department.

"It's a new thing for him; it's a new thing for us," he said about Mr. Greer. "It's a learning experience. I know there have been some hiccups."

But Parkland officials and some county commissioners prefer instead to reserve Parkland for surgeries and emergencies and build more clinics at the jail for most inmates, which would reduce the need for hospital guards.

Sharon Phillips, a Parkland vice president overseeing the hospital's takeover of jail health, said hospital, county and sheriff's officials are discussing ways to expand clinical space at the jails and increase the number of medical workers there.

The number of inmate referrals to Parkland increased 33 percent from 2004 to 2005, according to numbers provided by the hospital.

The costs

Greer was paid $893,124 last fiscal year for guarding inmates. During the first six months of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, Greer guards worked only 38 percent of the 28,521 hours spent guarding inmates at the hospital, according to the Sheriff's Department.

The Sheriff's Department picked up the slack, working 17,559 hours during that time. Using median salary figures, that translates roughly into $463,000 just in overtime costs.

Prior to the Greer contract, the county spent an average of about $340,000 per year from 2000 to 2003 for hospital guards. That did not include overtime. But county officials never crunched the numbers to learn how much overtime was spent.

County budget director Ryan Brown said he believes the county was spending about $1 million per year in regular and overtime pay combined. He said that was his best guess from discussions with sheriff's captains about overtime hours.

But Chief Deputy Mona Birdwell said she believes overtime costs were closer to a half-million dollars a year.

According to county documents, Greer can be paid up to $1 million a year for its services.

Dallas County is the only large county in Texas to outsource hospital guard service. Greer typically guards low-risk prisoners charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies. Serious offenders are chained to beds and watched by sheriff's detention officers or deputies.

Greer was one of eight security companies to bid on the contract in 2003. Greer, which had 78 employees and five years of experience, was initially the third-lowest bidder, offering to do the job for $621,600. But Greer won the contract after the two companies with lower bids withdrew.

At the time, Greer had only 11 or 12 guards who had the required state certification, but the company said more of its guards would be trained, according to a 2003 purchasing department memo.

Two years later, when the county renewed Greer's contract for the second time in October, a majority of the company's employees still were not state licensed, county memos said, resulting in more Sheriff's Department overtime.

As early as November 2004, the district attorney's civil division sent a letter to Mr. Greer, asking him to comply with the contract terms.

"Dallas County believes that you have been remiss in your obligation to provide hospital guards within the agreed upon time requirements," Bob Schell, chief of the civil division, wrote in the letter.

It wasn't the first time complaints were lodged against the company.

In 2004, then-Chief Deputy Lana Porter provided complaints and data from her department and Parkland security to county staff members, according to a county memo dated Dec. 9 of that year. It did not state the nature of the complaints.

But her investigation ended with her retirement. She could not be reached for comment.

Capt. Ray Daberko, then an assistant chief deputy, wrote in the memo that it would be difficult to go forward with the complaints because Chief Porter was no longer around to interpret and explain them. He proposed an agreement with Greer under which the sheriff would "suspend prosecuting the termination of the contract," according to the memo.

"Essentially, everyone is born 1/1/05 and prior to that date has done nothing either wrong or right," Capt. Daberko wrote, an apparent reference to the date Sheriff Lupe Valdez was sworn in. "The new sheriff should not be bound with an existing convoluted complaint."

County staffers say no record of that complaint can be found. Capt. Daberko was at a retreat last week and was unavailable for comment.

Prior to winning the county hospital guard contract, Greer did work for the Dallas Housing Authority for three years, guarding several housing properties, according to its bid packet.

Guard policy

Chief McMillan said most of the Parkland escapes occurred because policy does not require guards to constantly stand watch over inmates charged with misdemeanor offenses. He said the department is rethinking that policy due to the escapes.

However, the cost of 24-hour supervision can be costly, he said, especially when inmates need two or three weeks to recover from surgery.

Other sheriff's departments in Texas say they won't take on the risk of hiring security guards.

Terry Grisham, spokesman for Tarrant County Sheriff's Office, said privatizing hospital guard duty has never been discussed. Whenever inmates are outside the jail, the risk of escape increases, he said.

"We believe once an inmate is incarcerated, that inmate is under the care and security of the sheriff, and that is a job that cannot be delegated," he said.

Chief Birdwell said Greer is having problems hiring guards "just like we are."

Because inmates have to be supervised by a jailer, Greer has to find people and train them to be licensed jailers.

The work is not steady or predictable. Some weeks, employees may make good money if a high number of inmates are taken to Parkland. Other weeks, it may be slow, and they may not make any money.

"If they can be jailers, they could come down here [to the Sheriff's Department] and work full time," she said.

Dallas County officials have discussed the possibility of opening a secure floor or unit of Parkland specifically for inmates, but the hospital was opposed, Mr. Brown said. Building a separate jail hospital was deemed too expensive, he said. Hospital security has been an ongoing concern, particularly after two shootouts at Parkland's emergency room.

In the last incident, in 1992, a bank robbery suspect grabbed a deputy's gun and fired twice in the emergency room. No one was shot, but a deputy was hurt during a scuffle. The inmate was later recaptured.

Commissioner Maurine Dickey said she would prefer to expand and improve health facilities at the jail. She said the jail's infirmary is too small and in bad condition.

"We're spending a lot of money unnecessarily that could go to an infirmary," she said.

Dr. Ron Anderson, Parkland's president and chief executive officer, said it's difficult to staff a hospital jail ward. He said he prefers sending his medical staff to a jail clinic.

"The best way to do this is to not have them [inmates] here at all," he said.

Hospital escapes

April 12 - Ray Morales, 41, escaped from Parkland after a guard left to use the restroom. Mr. Morales faced arson and criminal mischief charges.

Feb. 10 - Christopher Kaisler, 35, escaped from Parkland after he asked for permission to use the restroom. A guard stood outside the restroom but never heard Mr. Kaisler open the door. Mr. Kaisler bolted for a staircase. The guard said he stopped chasing him because he was "going down the stairwell fast," a sheriff's report said. Mr. Kaisler was accused of felony car theft.

Dec. 21 - Gregory S. Jennings, 35, walked out of Parkland. He was not being guarded at the time. Mr. Jennings, who had two previous escape charges, was accused of assault.

Sept. 19 - Maulana Rusley, 32, walked out of Parkland. He was not being guarded at the time. Mr. Rusley faced criminal trespassing and theft charges.

May 9, 2005 - Elizabeth Craft, 22, walked out of Parkland after asking to use the restroom. The guard had unshackled her and then left to answer the phone. When the guard returned, she was gone. Ms. Craft faced felony theft charges.

Aug. 22, 2004 - Luis Ochoa, 32, ran down a hallway after returning from the restroom. He was caught at the elevators by a guard. He had been charged with theft.

Dec. 22, 2003 - Curley J. Henderson, 53, walked out of Parkland after being discharged by hospital staff. He did not have a guard watching him. He faced a misdemeanor criminal trespassing charge and a felony parole violation charge.

Oct. 22, 2003 - Felicia Etheridge, 18, was given permission to go to the McDonald's restaurant inside Parkland and never returned. She faced a drug possession charge.

Copyright (c) 2006, The Dallas Morning News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.