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Arizonans Deserves Better

Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
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October 23, 2008

Perhaps nothing better crystallizes the significance of yesterday’s landmark judicial ruling mandating that infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio take a number of concrete and substantive steps to improve the conditions and level of health care delivered to prisoners at the Maricopa County Jail then a letter received by the ACLU of Arizona from a criminal justice and sociology professor in southern Kentucky.

The professor begins his letter by making clear that he has never been much of a fan of the ACLU. He writes that he’s a supporter of the death penalty and that he believes we often are too soft on the inmates in our nation’s prisons and jails. But then he acknowledges that a vast majority of the prisoners that spend time behind bars at some point or another return to their communities, that, as a result, rehabilitation needs to be a primary aspect of incarceration and that increased education and enhanced mental health for prisoners are in fact achievable goals if the taxpayer money used to lock them up was used effectively.

“In this case, you all are bringing attention to a bad situation that has been going on for too long,” the professor writes.

For decades, the Maricopa County Jail, and the facilities the house pre-trial detainees — people who have been arrested but not yet tried or convicted — has been a literal house of horrors. Medical and mental health care has been non-existent, handfuls of detainees have been forced into a single cell leaving some to sleep without mattresses or blankets, access to things like toilets and soap and toilet paper has been spotty and the food prisoners are forced to eat often is moldy.

Arpaio not only has exhibited no concern for maintaining these conditions, he has bragged about them and used them to bolster his claim that he is “America’s toughest sheriff.” But yesterday a federal judge ruled him to be in violation of the Constitution, ordered him to ensure that medical and mental health care is provided to those who need it, that prisoners receive uninterrupted access to prescription drugs, that they have access to clean toilets and soap and that he prove to the ACLU on a quarterly basis that he is doing so.

According to Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project and the ACLU’s lead counsel in the effort to force Arpaio to treat the prisoners in his care humanely, the ruling is a major victory for everyone who has or ever will have a loved one in Arpaio’s jail. But if the plight of the incarcerated in Maricopa County isn’t enough to move you, maybe the argument fronted by our professor-friend in Kentucky is.

Taxpayers deserve better than to have to prop up a jail system that only further damages the inmates who pass through its doors. Taxpayers deserve the criminal justice systems they pay for to effectively treat the men and women who spend time in them. Taxpayers deserve to have healthy and productive citizens returned to the communities in which they live.

Maybe now the taxpayers in Maricopa County finally will get what they deserve.

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