by Matt Clarke
The most recent developments in a thirty-year history of abuse and medical neglect of prisoners by Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) include three lawsuits in which the county paid almost $3 million in settlements. Those cases follow repeated reports and investigations that have found gross deficiencies at MCSO jails.
The tragic events that resulted in the lawsuits prompted Phoenix civil rights attorney Michael C. Manning – who has already won over $17 million in judgments against MCSO and self-styled “toughest sheriff in America” Joe Arpaio – to ask the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate abuses within the MCSO.
Manning represented the family of Brian Crenshaw, who was 40 years old, mentally disabled and legally blind when he was arrested for shoplifting in 2003. Maricopa County jail physicians prescribed Crenshaw anti-depressants and prohibited his being housed in the jail’s infamous Tent City. However, guards denied him his medications and assigned him to Tent City anyway, where he was reportedly beaten by a guard and placed in solitary confinement.
He died of internal complications several weeks later after being found unconscious in his segregation cell with a broken neck, fractured toes and other injuries. In January 2008, the county agreed to a $2 million settlement in a lawsuit filed by Crenshaw’s family. Jail officials continue to deny any fault in his death, and claim his injuries resulted from a fall off his 4-foot, 2-inch tall bunk. See: Evans v. Maricopa County, Superior Court of Maricopa County, AZ, Case No. CV2004-004221.
On April 23, 2008, Maricopa County agreed to pay $125,000 to Nick Tarr, a proponent of allowing slot machines at dog race tracks – a political issue that Sheriff Arpaio opposed.
Tarr was wearing a khaki shirt with Arizona Department of Public Safety patches over an “I (heart) Arizona” T-shirt, plus pink boxer shorts (similar to those that Arpaio requires jail prisoners to wear). While in his “Joe Arizona” attire, Tarr was arrested by MCSO deputies on Oct. 31, 2002 for impersonating a police officer. The charges were eventually dropped and Tarr filed suit, alleging the incident had impaired his ability to earn a living.
See: Tarr v. Maricopa County, U.S.D.C. (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:04-cv-00411-MEA.
On April 1, 2008, Manning filed another lawsuit against the county and Sheriff Arpaio in Maricopa County Superior Court for denying a prisoner medical care, resulting in his death. The suit, which alleged state tort claims and civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, related to Rico Rossi, a local businessman and veteran who had pleaded guilty to a DUI charge. Sentenced to 24 hours in jail, he was in a holding tank awaiting release when he collapsed. Other prisoners attempted to get the guards’ attention.
After a long delay, Sgt. DeLaRosa came to the tank door, observed Rossi on the floor, and told the prisoners he was merely having a seizure and to roll him on his side. Rossi was having trouble breathing and showed darkened skin color. Eventually he stopped breathing, which the prisoners reported to jail staff.
Medical personnel eventually arrived at the tank. They did not bring emergency equipment with them and had to go back and forth to the infirmary several times. When they finally showed up with a breathing mask they didn’t know how to use it, failed to hyperextend Rossi’s neck so air could flow into his lungs instead of merely inflating his cheeks, and ignored the other prisoners’ helpful suggestions on how to use the equipment.
Dr. Gonzales, on duty in a nearby jail infirmary, refused to come to the tank and instead told guards to call 911. They did but gave the 911 operator the wrong address, which resulted in a 20-minute delay before an ambulance arrived. Rossi was pronounced dead after being taken to a hospital. The county Board of Supervisors agreed to pay $800,000 to settle the wrongful death suit filed by Rossi’s family. See: Rossi v. Maricopa County, Superior Court of Maricopa County, AZ, Case No. CV2008-007376.
The chronic abuse and neglect of prisoners at MCSO jails prompted Michael Manning to contact the U.S. Attorney General’s office and request an investigation. In an April 23, 2008 letter, Manning explained how he was a commercial litigation attorney who was first drawn into a lawsuit against Arpaio in 1998 due to his friendship with the mother of a prisoner who died in a jail restraint chair.
Manning’s letter described both a pattern of prisoner abuse and Arpaio’s history of tampering with evidence when sued. It also outlined the many reports – some commissioned by the MCSO itself – that repeatedly warned of abusive and dangerous conditions in the jails, but were ignored by the county and sheriff.
For example, in 1996 the DOJ hired Eugene Miller, an expert with a national reputation, to study MCSO facilities. Miller concluded that a culture of cruelty and understaffing existed in the jails, which led to the frequent use of excessive force and a failure to honestly investigate complaints of abuse. He concluded that failure to correct such conditions would result in lawsuits that would cost the county much more than implementing reforms.
Several months after Miller’s report was released, the DOJ warned the MCSO that unconstitutional, unjustified excessive force was being used against jail prisoners, reports of excessive use of force were not being investigated, the jail was severely understaffed, in-service training was inadequate, and prisoners were not being given their prescribed medications and were denied humane levels of health care.
In a confidential 1996 letter to the county Board of Supervisors, Sheriff Arpaio admitted that unjustified excessive force was being used, prisoners’ complaints of excessive force were not being investigated, many essential elements for running the jails were failing, and further violence was inevitable.
The MCSO entered into a settlement with the DOJ in 1997, in which it agreed to correct the use of force, medical, in-service training and understaffing issues. However, the county failed to remedy those problems. The DOJ, as it invariably does, failed to enforce the settlement and simply dismissed the suit. The U.S. Attorney who mishandled the case was Janet Napolitano, whom Arpaio endorsed when she ran for, and was elected, governor of Arizona. Napolitano is now Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Maricopa County hired George Sullivan, another jail expert with a national reputation, to review its facilities in 1997. He reported that excessive force was still being used, staffing was below safe levels, a “code of silence” allowed abuse of prisoners by guards and medical staff to flourish and go unpunished, in-service training was still inadequate, conditions in the Tent City were inhumane, and Arpaio’s “tough talk” against prisoners encouraged a culture of cruelty. Sullivan recommended that the jails stop using restraint chairs, and predicted that settlements and verdicts against the county would be expensive.
The MCSO then hired Dennis Liebert, yet another nationally-known jail expert. He reported the Sheriff’s office had an operational policy of understaffing, with prisoner-to-staff ratios as high as 266 to 1. Staff safety training had been cancelled, assaults were increasing in the jails, and guards admitted that the facilities were dangerously unsafe. Liebert recommended that the Tent City be closed, and predicted increased liability from lawsuits.
A group of doctors working at MCSO facilities sent a confidential letter to county leaders in 1999, warning of the jail staff’s indifference to prisoners’ medical needs and the concealment of evidence of prisoner abuse by the medical management team. The doctors said the system was deteriorating and serious risks lay ahead.
Also in 1999, the MCSO and DOJ entered into another settlement agreement in which the county agreed to provide constitutionally adequate medical care to prisoners. The MCSO did not honor that agreement and the DOJ once again did nothing.
The following year the county hired Dr. Jacqueline Moore, a health care expert, to review its jails. Dr. Moore found there were serious systemic deficiencies in the provision of medical care to prisoners, the restraint chair was being used as punishment, prisoners were being denied mental health treatment, prisoners’ medical records from previous jail terms were not being consulted, medical screening was inadequate, prisoners were denied prescribed medication, and prisoners with mental health issues were being abused by guards.
In 2002, Maricopa County hired retired MCSO captain Jerry Swatzell to study safety issues at the jails. He concluded the facilities were so understaffed as to make them critically unsafe.
The county re-hired Dennis Liebert in 2003. He reported that jail conditions were below minimum U.S. standards and violated a 1995 federal court order entered against MCSO. He warned of dangerous understaffing, poor staff training and inadequate health care standards, including interference with access to prescribed medications.
More recently, Dr. Todd Wilcox, a former director of health care for the MCSO, resigned in February 2008. He cited unconstitutional conditions as a reason for his decision to step down. “I have come to the realization that CHS [Correctional Health Services, which provides medical care at MCSO jails] is failing to deliver healthcare that meets constitutional minimums and that the current CHS administration is unqualified and has insufficient resources to rectify the situation moving into the future,” Dr. Wilcox wrote.
In late September 2008, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care revoked its accreditation of MCSO jails, finding they did not meet federal standards for prisoner health care, and stated that county officials had provided the Commission with incorrect information. The Commission had previously found in December 2005 that 14 “essential” or “important” standards were not being met at MCSO facilities.
On October 21, 2008, U.S. District Court Judge Neil V. Wake, following extensive hearings, held that MCSO jails continued to violate prisoners’ civil rights. The Court modified a 1995 judgment in a class action suit that set forth minimum constitutional standards for pretrial detainees. Continuing violations included overcrowding and inadequate nutrition. See: Graves v. Arpaio, U.S.D.C. (D. Ariz.), Case No. 2:77-cv-00479-NVW.
“Sheriff Arpaio’s horrendous treatment of detainees, especially those with severe medical and mental health problems, has caused terrible suffering for years,” stated Margaret Winter, Associate Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, who represents the prisoners in the Graves litigation.
Despite this litany of constant criticism and documented deficiencies, MSCO Deputy Chief Jack MacIntyre noted that other agencies and investigators had reviewed and approved the county’s treatment of prisoners.
Attorney Michael Manning has not been alone in his condemnation of the MCSO and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and the Anti-Defamation League have both contacted the DOJ, expressing concerns related to Arpaio’s use of immigration sweeps and racial profiling. Further, Arizona’s Legislative Latino Caucus sent a formal letter to U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi in April 2008, calling for hearings into civil rights violations by the Sheriff’s office.
These numerous letters, reports, warnings, settlements and court judgments reveal a juggernaut of prisoner abuse fueled by unresolved systemic problems in MCSO jails that have persisted for well over a decade. The monetary cost to Maricopa County is rapidly mounting; the cost in basic decency and humanity, and in the deaths of prisoners due to abuse and medical neglect, is immeasurable.
Another needless death at an MCSO facility occurred on December 5, 2007 after Juan Mendoza Farias, while handcuffed in an isolation cell, was shot with pepper balls and a Taser, doused with pepper spray, then shocked with a stun shield and more Tasers. He died two hours later following several other altercations involving over a dozen guards.
Video footage of some of the events leading up to Farias’ death was either withheld or did not exist, and the Phoenix New Times had to file suit to get the MCSO to release records related to the incident.
Farias had been arrested for a DUI offense; he suffered from seizures, but was placed in the jail’s general population. Ultimately he received a death sentence at the hands of MCSO guards. In other words, business as usual under Sheriff Arpaio’s leadership.
Sources: Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, Letters from Michael C. Manning dated 4-23-08 and 9-26-07
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