Federal Judge Orders Arizona Sheriff To Stop Putting Prisoners’ Health In Danger

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ROSS D. FRANKLIN

By Sam P.K. Collins

Notoriously anti-immigrant Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is back in the national spotlight, and not for a good reason. On Tuesday, a federal judge extended a court order that mandates that Arpaio improve medical and mental health care in Maricopa County’s jails.

Last year, Arpaio and Maricopa County commissioners asked the federal court to lift a 2008 court order that charged the group with ending the overcrowding of facilities, providing adequate medical and mental health care, serving food that meets the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary standards, and maintaining access to medication provided by staff.

During a hearing that ended in March, Neil Wake, the judge who issued the order, concluded that Arpaio and his colleagues fell short in meeting their obligations, signaling a need to keep the order intact. Prisoners’ rights organizations celebrated the recent decision as a step in the right direction for people harmed while under police supervision in the Arizona-based jail system.

“Last year, the Maricopa County jails requested an end to the 2008 court order, claiming that they’d done what was necessary for the detainees’ mental and physical health,” Eric Balaban, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, wrote in a press release. “We said, ‘Not so fast.’ We investigated, bringing medical and mental health experts to the jail, and what we found showed Judge Wake that the jails have a long way to go before his order can be lifted.”

This year, families filed wrongful death suits against Maricopa County that have totaled at least $5 million. Relatives of Felix Martinez, a detainee who succumbed to complications of an untreated stomach ulcer, counted among the plaintiffs. Court documents also outlined instances when Maricopa County jail officials fed inmates rotten food, housed them in cells so hot that it endangered their health, and packed them in holding cells for days at a time during intake.

Unfortunately, stories of inmate abuse and breakdown in medical and mental health services have become increasingly common, especially since the 1980s when mental health resources shifted from local clinics to prisons, causing an influx in the mentally ill inmate population. Today, Arizona’s mentally ill population stands at ten times that of its psychiatric facilities.

Inmates who suffer from mental health issues can expect to succumb from stressful situations, as seen in a 2001 case involving a man with a history of paranoia who died from a heart attack after he thought officers tried to rape him. That man’s experience bears similarity to those of people from economically disadvantaged background who enter the legal system with untreated illnesses — including major depression, personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.

While it has yet to be seen whether Arpaio, county sheriff since 1993, will ensure that Maricopa County’s jails meet the standards of what’s outlined in the court order, it’s clear that he cannot further ignore the subpar conditions that inmates under his watch have to endure.

“Those in charge of Maricopa County’s jails can no longer skirt their constitutional responsibility for detainees’ health,” said Balaban. “Judge Wake found severe problems with the jails’ medical care, from intake to treatment. Detainees have had serious illnesses that the jails’ staff missed or ignored, causing permanent injuries and even deaths. With today’s decision, every detainee at Maricopa County should have access to adequate medical and mental health care. At last.”