Inmates awaiting trial in Maricopa County jails are housed in conditions that jeopardize their health and safety in violation of their constitutional rights, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Neil Wake said Sheriff Joe Arpaio and correctional health officials provide inadequate medical and mental health care, unsanitary conditions, unhealthy food, minimal supervision and disciplinary practices that cause mentally ill inmates “needless suffering and deterioration.”
Ruling in a 30-year-old class action lawsuit brought by inmates, Wake banned the use of so-called “boats,” or portable beds, required anyone housed in intake units longer than 24 hours to receive a bed or mattress and ordered that inmates have access to care that meets their medical and mental health needs.
The judge also ordered that pretrial inmates, who make up about two-thirds of the jail population, be properly screened for mental health and medical conditions, given food that meets or exceeds federal dietary standards, and be housed in sanitary conditions that include functional toilets and sinks, soap and toilet paper.
And he required the sheriff and Correctional Health Services to issue quarterly reports demonstrating that they are in compliance with the order, and for the county to pay the plaintiff’s attorneys fees.
“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, an attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project who represented inmates in the case.
“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.”
Wake, however, did end several provisions of the consent decree, which resulted from a 1977 lawsuit. The judge ruled that the jails met or exceeded constitutional requirements regarding dayroom privileges, emergency medical equipment and housing at the Estrella women’s jail. He also said that triple bunking at Durango jail does not constitute a federal rights violation.
Jack MacIntyre, an attorney and chief deputy for the sheriff’s office, said he hadn’t read the entire ruling but expected that some of it would be appealed. The remaining issues, MacIntyre said, are easily complied with.
“The only thing that the judge addressed (regarding overcrowding) was Towers jail” segregation units, he said. “That’s a splinter of one facility. It applies to only 40 out of 10,000 prisoners. The rest of them are housed perfectly well.”
Jail conditions already exceed constitutional requirements in most areas, he said.
The county sought to end provisions of the consent decree and argued that a federal prison reform act required the case to be closed.
“I didn’t think it was all going to go away in one swoop,” MacIntyre said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t regroup in a little while and come back” and ask the judge to reconsider his ruling.
The jail’s medical and psychiatric clinics, licensed by the state Department of Health Services until 2003, lost national accreditation last month, in part because of testimony in this case. Operated by Correctional Health Services, a separate county agency, the clinics were placed on probation in 2006 for failure to assess inmates for medical problems and keep track of the mentally ill behind bars.
During nearly four weeks of testimony, Wake heard inmates tell of medical crises that were ignored, medications that were missed, feces-strewn cells and rotten food. Experts testified that significant medical and mental health problems went unnoticed because of inadequate screening, threatening the health of seriously ill inmates.
But attorneys representing Arpaio and Correctional Health Services argued that incidents of moldy bread or ill inmates don’t constitute the systemic failures needed to prove federal rights violations.
Wake disagreed. In his ruling, he took Arpaio and Correctional Health Services to task.
“Systematic deficiencies in the screening process significantly impair continuity of care and result in failure to identify pretrial detainees with immediate medical needs,” Wake wrote.
Regarding mentally ill inmates, the judge wrote: “Many of the pretrial detainees housed at the Lower Buckeye jail psychiatric unit are maintained in segregation lockdown with little or no meaningful therapeutic treatment, which results in needless suffering and deterioration.”
Wake also ruled that pretrial inmates must have enough room in intake and court holding cells so they don’t have to touch one another, and ordered that they be monitored “in a manner and frequency that protects the pretrial detainees’ health and safety.”
Phoenix attorney Debra Hill, who represented the inmates with Winter, said the next step is to ensure that Wake’s ruling is enforced.