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Health Commission Gets Tough on "America's Toughest Sheriff"

Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
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October 1, 2008

Big news reverberated out of Maricopa County, Ariz., yesterday when it was made public that the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) last week stripped all of Maricopa County’s Sheriff’s Office jails — run by the infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio — of their accreditation. Not only did the NCCHC say (PDF) it was terminating its accreditation because of the county’s failure to maintain levels of medical and mental health care that meet national standards, but it also accused county officials of providing false information about their compliance. In other words, they lied in an effort to cover up grossly inadequate conditions. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise though: as this is pretty par for the course for Arpaio, who refers to himself as “America’s toughest sheriff,” has bragged recently about spending only 30 cents a day on meals served to the pre-trial detainees housed at the Maricopa County Jail and is famous for forcing them to eat outdated and oxidized green bologna.

Thanks to the work of lawyers from the ACLU’s National Prison Project, however, Arpaio’s deceit and inhumanity are being exposed to a degree never before seen. A ruling in an ACLU lawsuit that seeks to force Arpaio to be accountable to a federal consent decree mandating that he maintain conditions at the jail that meet constitutional minimums is expected any day. In seeking to prove that Arpaio must be subjected to federal court oversight, lawyers spent nearly two months in trial documenting a laundry list of egregious stories that crystallize just how callous and out of control Arpaio and his deputies are. Among the most horrific: the story of Juan Mendoza Farias, booked for a DUI-related probation violation who died in custody with blunt force injuries on his face, torso and limbs, according to the county medical examiner. Another: the death at the hands of officers of 33-year-old Charles Agster, a mentally retarded man who weighed 125 pounds. A jury awarded Agster’s family $9 million in damages in 2006 — one of over 2,500 inmate lawsuits against Arpaio that have cost the county more than $42 million.

What’s ironic about the NCCHC stripping Maricopa County of its accreditation is that the county had used that very accreditation as one of its primary defenses against the ACLU’s charges that there are grossly inadequate conditions in existence that need to be fixed immediately. Perhaps the NCCHC saw which way the wind was blowing in the ACLU’s case and couldn’t imagine accrediting an outfit that was found to be in violation of the Constitution by a federal judge. Either way, it is clear that Arpaio’s tough guy attitude is beginning to wear very thin.

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