A team of consultants will inspect Maricopa County jails and ensure conditions are brought up to standards that no longer violate inmates' constitutional rights.
U.S. District Judge Neil Wake on Friday gave attorneys representing inmates and the county's Correctional Health Services until Jan. 9 to agree on who that will be, or he will do it for them.
The hearing comes six weeks after Wake ruled that the jails jeopardize the health and safety of inmates awaiting trial, putting a 30-year-old class-action lawsuit on track toward settlement.
But first, attorneys for the county and the inmates must agree on who will evaluate the jails and, ultimately, recommend specific improvements, including additional staff, electronic medical records and other systemic changes to fix problems ranging from unsanitary conditions to unmet medical and mental health needs.
Wake said he was encouraged by the progress both sides had made since his Oct. 22 ruling, particularly with respect to overcrowding and sanitation. Issues regarding inmate health care are more complex and will take longer to resolve.
But he made clear his intention to move quickly, saying that once the jails are brought up to constitutional standards and remain there for one year, federal law will require that the lawsuit be dismissed.
"Then the jail will be in the hands it's supposed to be in," Wake said. "I have strong motivation to get this done sooner rather than later," the judge said.
ACLU attorney Margaret Winter said the county's concession to some kind of oversight was a big step.
Though there has been quibbling over what the oversight will be called, Wake said Friday "it's functionally a special master."
"What we've been proposing is a team," Winter said. "We're willing to call it anything they like: analysts, consultants, a team of snowmen."
In his order, Wake required that pre-trial 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.
He also required quarterly reports from Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Correctional Health Services demonstrating that they are in compliance.
A draft proposal, filed Nov. 18, outlined how the county would comply with Wake's order and offered several measures, including a "psychiatric training academy."
But much of the document explained how Correctional Health Services already did what the judge had ordered.
Correctional Health is a separate agency responsible for inmate medical, mental health and dental care.
Jack MacIntyre, an attorney and chief deputy for the sheriff's office, said they would never agree to be monitored. The portion of the lawsuit involving Sheriff Joe Arpaio centered on food, overcrowding and sanitation.
"Everything has been resolved, except for food. And even that is well on its way to compliance," MacIntyre said. No matter who is chosen to oversee compliance with Wake's order, the Board of Supervisors will have to approve additional funding. The board is on the hook for attorneys fees, as well as the bill for monitoring and implementing the changes.
In the past, county officials have said they couldn't afford electronic medical records for the jails. But Wake, in his ruling, said "budgetary constraints do not justify delay in treatment for a serious medical need."
Winter, with the ACLU's Prison Project, said she's seen correctional systems make dramatic turnarounds under judicial oversight, particularly when they're given the resources they need.
"Everybody has the same goal in mind. They want a good system," she said.
"There's nothing like a federal court order for getting the resources that you need."