Paralyzed man recounts Dallas jail nightmare

James Lewis filed suit against Dallas County over the poor treatment he said he received after being taken to jail earlier this year.

DALLAS — James Lewis hasn't felt anything below his waist in more than eight years — not since a work injury left him paralyzed. 

He has suffered many indignities, large and small. But nothing, he says, prepared him for the treatment he received at the Dallas County jail earlier this year.

"I was abused. I feel like I was neglected," he said. "[I was] ridiculed, made fun of... just completely disregarded as a human being."

A lawyer representing Lewis has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that jailers systematically violated Lewis' rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The lawsuit contends, among other things, that he was denied proper medical care and that Lewis' leg was broken during that jail stay when personnel ignored his repeated pleas that he could not lift himself up on his own.

"This is the worst ADA jail violations that I've seen in my career," said Scott Palmer, Lewis' attorney. "They treated him as though he was a nuisance and problem."

Dallas County jail officials had no comment on the allegations outlined in the lawsuit.

Lewis, 57, was a building maintenance technician until he was paralyzed in September 2007 after falling from a ladder. The accident severed his spinal cord, leaving him dependent on his wife of 28 years to dress him, bathe him, empty his bowel bag, and to move him from a bed to a wheelchair.

He gets emotional even now talking about how it's completely altered his life and left him helpless in many ways.  

Lewis is in constant pain.

"On a scale of one to 10, I run an eight," he said.

Last March, Lewis was arrested following an armed confrontation in a UT Southwestern Medical Center parking lot. He had pulled a gun on a man who he felt was threatening him. Lewis was taken into custody on charges of aggravated assault and possession of a prohibited weapon.

A grand jury would later clear him of the charges, but that arrest led to a nightmarish jail stay for the paraplegic Lewis.

"Their standard answer when you ask for help is, 'We don't get paid enough to do that,'" he said.

After arriving at the facility, jailers made him sit on a hard plastic chair with no arm rests, he said. Lewis said he explaineg that sitting on a hard surface would aggravate his spinal injury.

"I was like, 'Man, that chair is going to make me hurt,'" Lewis recalled. "They said, ‘That's the only choice you have.'"

After some time, Lewis said he lost his balance and fell to the floor, where he remained for hours. He passed out at times, losing track of time.

At one point, he woke up to find inmates cleaning blood off the floor. A foot injury he had suffered while trying to get away from the other man in the hospital parking garage had started bleeding again.

Eventually, inmates were called to help pick Lewis up and put him back in the chair, he said.

He was then put in a small room and told to dress himself. He told them that he could not get dressed in a sitting position and that his wife dressed him.

"He said, ‘Well, I ain't going to help you,'" Lewis said.

The prisoner said he managed to roll out of his wheelchair onto the floor, fell to the floor, and somehow managed to dress himself. Later, another jailer told him to follow him. Lewis told him he was paralyzed and could not. He said the jailer accused him of faking his condition.

"I lifted up my shirt. I said, ‘I got a colostomy pouch here. I got a pain pump here. I got a leg bag down here for urinary,'" Lewis said. "'Do you think I like laying here on the nasty jail floor if I couldn't stand up?'"

He said the jailer told him his paperwork indicated he was handicapped, not paralyzed. A short time later, Lewis was put in a wheelchair and taken to a room where he was put on "suicide watch."

"I asked them why, and they said, ‘Well probably you made someone mad at book-in,'" Lewis said.

He said all of his clothes were taken, and he was made to lie on a concrete slab. He said he tried to again tell a jailer that a hard surface like that would cause him terrible pain. He said he laid on the slab for hours, losing all track of time.

"It was excruciatingly painful.," lewis said, his voice shaking. "Mentally, I was just like, 'Really? You're going to do this for me? I don't have much self-image left as it is.'"

By then, Lewis had been without his pain medication for hours. Lewis has an implanted pain medication pump. He did not have his remote controller that would have provided some relief.

"The inmates at the jail were the only ones that showed any signs of sympathy or compassion or concern for me," Lewis said. "The jailers could have cared less."

He has no idea how long he went without food, water, or his urine bag being emptied.

Meanwhile, Lewis' wife of 28 years, Teri Lewis, was desperately trying to get him out of jail. She couldn't bail him out because no bond had been set.

Lewis said she contacted the jail, asking how she could get his medications to him.

"They were like, 'We don't care. You can send it in the mail,'" she said. "They never told me anything."

Teri Lewis hired attorney Lynn Johnson, who began trying to locate him in the jail system.

"She was so hysterical," Johnson recalled. "I could hear her desperation."

Johnson went to the jail trying to find him. He had  been arrested on a Tuesday. By then, it was Thursday. She said jail officials were unable to to tell her exactly where he was.

At some point, jailers decided to take Lewis to the infirmary so that the bandages on his foot wound could be changed. He said they told him to get himself up and into a wheelchair. He said he kept telling him that he simply couldn't do it.

One of the jailers told Lewis to use a stool by the table to pull himself up. Lewis said he attempted to comply.

"The guy said, ‘You're not even trying. Come on. You've got to try harder than that,'" Lewis said. "I wrapped both arms around that stool and mustered up everything I had left and grabbed it and pulled... and there was a loud crack that echoed off the masonry walls."

He said a younger jailer said, "I think he broke his leg. Did you hear that noise?" But one of the other jailers, an older gentleman, repoortedly said: "Nah. He didn't break anything."

At the infirmary, a nurse found that his urine bag had swollen to twice its normal size.

"We have to empty it before it pops," the nurse said, according to the lawsuit.

Lewis said he then told jail infirmary staff that he thought his leg was broken. He said they did not listen, and instead put him in a cell. Someone brought him food to eat, but by then he was too weak to sit up and eat it.

"There was some points that I told myself, ‘Why don't you just quit breaking and it will be all over,'" Lewis said.

Finally, at some point, Lewis was taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital, where X-rays showed his leg had, in fact, been broken. He also had developed a urinary tract infection from having his urine bag changed at the jail.

That Friday, Johnson returned to the jail and finally located Lewis at Parkland, where he was finally arraigned via video by a judge.  

"I've never had an experience like that with a client," she said. "He was treated like piece of meat."

Lewis said he would like to ask the jailers if they would treat a grandmother or any other relative that way.

"I don't believe they would," he said.


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