Judge Calls Maricopa County Jail Conditions Unconstitutional

Affiliate: ACLU of Arizona
October 22, 2008 12:00 am

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Sheriff Arpaio Ordered To Provide Adequate Medical And Mental Health Care And To Ensure Humane Facilities

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PHOENIX – A U.S. district court judge today ruled that the grossly inadequate conditions at the Maricopa County Jail, overseen by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, are unconstitutional and jeopardize the health and safety of prisoners.

In a sweeping rebuff of an attempt by Arpaio to terminate a federal consent decree mandating that he maintain conditions at the Maricopa County Jail that meet constitutional minimums, Judge Neil Wake ordered that jail officials ensure that all detainees receive necessary medical and mental health care, that they be given uninterrupted access to all medicines prescribed by correctional medical staff, that they be given access to toilets, sinks, toilet paper and soap and that they be served food that meets or exceeds the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines.

“Sheriff Arpaio’s horrendous treatment of detainees, especially those with severe medical and mental health problems, has caused terrible suffering for years,” said Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “Judge Wake’s decision should serve as a reminder that even a man who brags about being the toughest sheriff in America has to abide by the Constitution.”

The ruling comes on the heels of a decision last month by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care to terminate the accreditation of all of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office jails for failing to maintain compliance with national standards and for providing false information to the Commission.

The ACLU went to court last August to argue that deteriorating conditions within each of the jail’s five facilities that house pre-trial detainees – people who have been arrested but not yet tried or convicted – necessitate federal court oversight to ensure that Arpaio and other county officials maintain safe and humane conditions and provide the thousands of pre-trial detainees held there basic levels of medical and mental health care.

Arpaio has been attempting for nearly seven years to get out from under the consent decree that governs conditions under which pre-trial detainees are housed and which resulted from nearly two decades of litigation that centered on the jail’s horrific conditions. Under a provision of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the consent decree has been unenforceable since Arpaio filed a motion to have it terminated in September 2001.

According to today’s ruling, county officials will be forced to maintain records of their compliance with Wake’s orders and provide those records on a quarterly basis to the ACLU.

“Sheriff Arpaio’s actions have gone unchecked for too long and this ruling is a significant step toward much needed accountability,” said Daniel Pochoda, attorney with the ACLU of Arizona. “It is time that the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and all of the residents of Maricopa County take action to end his abusive practices.”

Pre-trial detainees at Maricopa County Jail are regularly given moldy bread, rotten fruit and other contaminated food. Detainees with serious medical, mental health and dental needs receive inadequate care, and they are routinely denied beds or bunks at intake, forcing them to sleep on the floor. Additionally, severe overcrowding in three of the jail’s facilities has created extremely dangerous environments by significantly increasing the potential for violence among inmates.

In one recent and particularly galling example, jail officials chose to punish rather than treat the bizarre behavior of a young and severely psychotic African immigrant. Jail officials put him in disciplinary segregation and chose to house him with other inmates, resulting in his being so severely beaten by his cell mates that he had to be taken to the emergency room.

In another case, a young man with cystic fibrosis was routinely denied breathing treatments and other medical treatment despite his repeated requests, resulting in his breathing capacity eroding by nearly 30 percent during the time of his detention.

Attorneys in the case include Winter and Hanh Nguyen of the ACLU, Pochoda of the ACLU of Arizona and Debbie Hill of the Phoenix law firm Osborn and Maledon.

Additional information about the ACLU’s National Prison Project can be found online at: www.aclu.org/prison/index.html

Additional information about the ACLU of Arizona can be found online at: www.acluaz.org

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