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Inmates' class-action suit targets jail system

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Posted: Sunday, August 10, 2008 6:47 pm

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's tough-guy policies spawned pink underwear, chain gangs and two meals a day for jail inmates, as well as an international media following. He's parlayed the jail's reputation as a hell-hole into four terms in office.

But now that a 30-year-old federal lawsuit alleging unconstitutionally inhumane treatment for inmates in his jails has been re-energized by a new judge, the sheriff's office is playing up the softer side of incarceration.

The class-action lawsuit, first filed in 1977 and finally headed back to court Tuesday, alleges that inmates who have not yet been convicted of a crime are denied adequate food, health care and housing in violation of constitutional provisions that protect them from punishment.

In papers filed with U.S. District Judge Neil Wake, attorneys for inmates paint a horrifying portrait of life inside the county jails, from fetid conditions in overcrowded intake units to cries for medical care that go unanswered.

But Jack MacIntyre, an attorney and chief deputy for the sheriff's office, said the jails pass constitutional muster, and then some.

Both pretrial and sentenced inmates have access to outdoor exercise, recreation areas, educational programs, religious services and substance-abuse classes, he said.

They're screened for health problems, fed a balanced diet and may receive medical, psychiatric or psychological services, he said.

"It's way beyond constitutional minimums," he said. "The jail in this county is not punishment. But it sure is not a free ride."

Wake will hear from expert witnesses, jail officials and inmates during hearings that begin this week and are expected to last nearly a month. Following an order from Wake, experts for both sides were permitted to examine records and tour jail facilities in June.

At issue is the county's 1998 request to end provisions of a consent decree, and subsequent motions to toss it out under a federal prison reform act intended to rein in inmate-rights lawsuits.

The inmates say the sheriff and correctional health officials never abided by terms of the agreement, and in the years that passed, health care, food, sanitation, overcrowding and other conditions at the jails have only worsened.

Since 1993, taxpayers have spent more than $30 million in settlements, verdicts and attorneys fees in separate cases where inmates have sued because of injury or death.

"The sheriff is providing unsafe jail environments for people who are arrested and not even convicted. And that's not right by anyone's standards," said Phoenix attorney Debra Hill, who represents the inmates in the class-action lawsuit.

"People should not become ill because they are served bad food in jail," she said. "They should not contract diseases because they are placed in a cell with an infected inmate. They should not be denied needed medications."

The inmates are suing both the sheriff's office and Correctional Health Services, a separate agency responsible for inmates' medical, mental and dental care, including monitoring of chronic conditions like HIV and diabetes, as well as serious mental illness.

It's up to the county's outside legal counsel, led by Phoenix attorneys Dennis Wilenchik and Michele Iafrate, to prove that pretrial inmates are housed and cared for in accordance with their federal rights, rebutting legal claims that they are at "substantial risk of serious harm to their health or safety" and that jail and health officials have acted "with conscious disregard for that risk."

Wake has ordered that the county's motion to end the suit be based on jail conditions from July 1, 2007, through June 30, rather than picking up where evidentiary hearings left off in January 2004.

In the lawsuit, the inmates say overcrowding at the Fourth Avenue Jail intake unit subjects them to "pain and to substantial risk of significant injury." Pretrial inmates account for about two-thirds of the jail population.

They say medical and mental health problems are missed during initial screenings, violence goes unreported, supervision is inadequate, inmates have no access to showers, soap, toothpaste or toothbrushes, and that toilets and sinks - shared by as many as 30 men - are often clogged with feces and inoperable.

"Defendants do not adequately supervise or perform security walks or welfare checks in Intake despite the fact that very little is known about inmates at this stage of the process," a pretrial brief said.

Inmates may languish for days in intake, according to the brief, forced to sleep on concrete floors, while sitting on benches or literally on top of each other.

MacIntyre said many of those who spend longer than 24 hours in the intake unit are illegal immigrants awaiting transfer to federal authorities and suspects who face charges from multiple jurisdictions, some tacked on after their arrest.

Even if the jails are crowded, MacIntyre said, there's no proof that those conditions have led to increased violence or other safety problems, which is required to prove a federal rights violation.

MacIntyre said intake areas are 10 times the size they were before the Lower Buckeye and Fourth Avenue jails opened in 2005.

"We've read some of their pleadings and I'm stumped by what it is they want us to rebut," MacIntyre said. "Neither of their experts said that they find a specific violation of constitutional standards."

Inmates' attorneys have dropped the vast majority of claims from the original lawsuit, he said, because they have no merit. Those issues included education, staff training, religion and visitation.

"As far as I'm concerned, the plaintiffs have abandoned the lion's share of the issues," MacIntyre said.

He conceded that the remaining matters - medical care, mental health care and housing conditions - are the most critical.

"But if this was a horrible jail, would there only be concerns about the top issues?" he said.

Hill will argue that mentally ill inmates are given little more than medication, if that, and critically ill inmates are allowed to become sicker while incarcerated.

Mental health care is inadequate, inmates allege, in part because there aren't enough staff members to provide it. Correctional Health Services is recruiting for several mental health positions, including a psychiatrist, therapist, psychologist, nurses and infection control coordinator.

"Defendants house acutely psychotic or otherwise mentally ill detainees in segregation units where they receive little or no mental health treatment," Hill wrote. "Essentially, these individuals are being warehoused - locked down in segregation for being mentally ill."

The county responds that Correctional Health Services has won accreditation by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, a voluntary program that, for a fee, accredits more than 500 jails and prisons nationwide.

Prior to 2003, the jail's clinics were licensed by the state Department of Health Services.

Hill says accreditation does equal constitutional care, a view supported by experts and previous court rulings.

Opening statements and testimony begin Tuesday with Correctional Health Services.

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