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Prisoners Hang Themselves in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Jails at a Rate that Dwarfs Other County Lockups

by Michael Lacey, Phoenix New Times

How many people have died in our sheriff’s jails? On May 4, 2015, I asked a spokesman for Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio for a cadaver count.

It was not an idle question.

Since he was elected sheriff in 1993, county taxpayers have shelled out more than $140 million to litigate – and ultimately settle – claims of brutality by the sheriff’s deputies. Lawsuits charge that the sheriff has cultivated a “culture of cruelty” motivated by Arpaio’s incessant trumpeting that he is America’s toughest lawman.

But even if you could kill and maim the indigent and the lawless for free, do we really want a medieval penal system?

So it is a simple, if morbid, question: How many body bags?

Sheriff Joe Arpaio has refused to answer. His spokesman, Lieutenant Brandon James, said doing the math would take a few weeks.

It’s been six months.

Searching other databases (the Office of the County Medical Examiner’s and the Office of Risk Management’s, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice’s) revealed that close to 160 people have died in Arpaio’s jails.

But that is an estimate, because the truth is that no outside authority keeps track of how many people die from brutality, neglect, disease, bad health or old age in Arpaio’s jails.

Federal Judge Neil Wake twice has ruled that medical care is so deficient in the jails as to be “unconstitutional.”

The Department of Justice supposedly monitors conditions in the jails but has shown little or no appetite for confronting Arpaio.

What my research discovered is that people hang themselves in the sheriff’s jail at a rate that dwarfs other county lockups.

And many of the deaths are classified as having occurred in the county hospital or in a cell without further explanation. People die and no one asks how; no one asks why. Pursuant to Arizona Revised Statute, Section 39-121 (Arizona’s Public Records law), this information on the deceased is supposed to be public.

But as the sheriff has demonstrated in the eight-plus years and counting of the Melendres lawsuit brought by the ACLU, he believes he is above any law.

At public functions and fundraisers, Arizona’s most venal Italian often breaks into his own cover of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” the cornball serenade of masculine neurosis. Voters lap it up. And if there is oversight of his abuse, there certainly is no consequence.

Government authorities responsible for the sheriff’s behavior show no alarm, or knowledge, of the dead carted out of the jails. Not at the federal level; not at the local level.

How can you prevent abuse, how can you reduce damage claims, how can you prevent the hemorrhaging of tax dollars to lawyers and victims if you don’t track the violence?

No one cares.

The sheriff’s charnel house is accepted because the victims are not members of a 4-H club. They are late on child support, use drugs, smoke cigarettes, drive without licenses, have problems with authority, sport ink with gang affiliations.

Some are worse.

When the Sheriff’s Office refused to produce what is supposed to be public information, I turned to the Medical Examiner’s Office.

Surprisingly, it does not monitor the deaths in Sheriff Joe’s lockup.

“I apologize for the delay in responding to your request,” wrote Lavinia Shaw from the M.E.’s Office. “We have been working diligently with our IT department in an effort to search our database for the information you requested.... We searched all cases that fell [within the] MCSO’s jurisdiction ... for the following key words: jail, inmate, cell, incarcerated, in custody and prison.... Some of the inmates were transferred to the hospital where they later died.”

More on that final point later.

Initially, the M.E.’s Office could do only a partial search, from 1999 to 2015. Before that, the records involved a paper search of more than 20,000 cases that would have cost this newspaper up to $60,000 for the years 1993 to 1998.

At the same time, I surveyed the County’s Office of Risk Management and found that more than 13,000 claims were filed against the Sheriff’s Office over mistreatment, abuse and ultimately death.

During the reign of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, research requested and provided from the coroner’s office showed 157 deaths.

In and of itself, the number is not necessarily out of line with jail deaths in other jurisdictions.

But digging into this data raises troubling questions, particularly when compared with jails across America.

Suicide is an all-too-frequent consequence of incarceration.

In jailhouse deaths across the nation, the U.S. Department of Justice notes the following rates of suicide over a three-year period from 2000 to 2002:

  • Los Angeles: 11 percent.
  • New York: 9 percent.
  • Cook County (Chicago): 6 percent.
  • Philadelphia: 14 percent.
  • Harris County (Houston): 13 percent.
  • Dade County (Miami): 6 percent.

From 1996 to 2015, the suicide rate among jail deaths in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s lockups was an astounding 24 percent, with 39 of the 157 hanging themselves.

Furthermore, of the 157 deaths listed on the sheriff’s watch on the M.E.’s chart, 34 simply are tagged as having been found dead with no explanation as to cause of death. More mysteriously, another 39 died in the county hospital without explanation.

That’s 73 deaths – nearly half of all deaths – that county authorities list as “who knows?”

Of course, all these numbers are generated by the very people who should be responsible for preventing abusive deaths: jailers and their enablers.

So questions present themselves.

For example, prisoner Felix Torres is listed as simply dying in the hospital on the M.E’s chart.

True enough. That’s where he was pronounced dead.

But it’s not where he died.

Felix Torres was a construction worker bicycling to his job when police stopped him for pedaling in the wrong direction. The stop ended with a trip to jail because Torres had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear.

During jail intake, he informed Arpaio’s staff that he had a very bad ulcer.

Once in the jail, Torres complained about pain in his stomach.

He was ignored by the medical staff.

He became seriously ill, vomiting, defecating and enduring hour after hour of agony, all while screaming for help.

To shut him up, the nursing staff gave him the one drug, Toradol, that you never give to someone with ulcers.

It flat-out killed him.

EMTs took the corpse to the hospital.

I know about all this because I wrote about Torres in June 2015.

So when county officials say Torres died in a hospital, this hardly covers the bill of particulars.

If you look up what the M.E.’s Office is responsible for, you find: “The medical examiner determines the cause and manner of death ... provides medicolegal investigations into all deaths requiring a public inquiry to determine and record the cause and manner of death for the families of the decedent, and the legal and medical community so that they can effect a resolution and have closure, affix responsibility and protect public health and safety.”

None of this occurred in nearly half of the sheriff’s deaths, according to the report supplied to us.

Chief County Medical Examiner Jeffrey Johnson’s office has not “determined the cause and manner of death,” no “medicolegal investigations into all deaths” occurred, the “families of the decedent” ... found no “resolution and closure.”

And certainly the M.E.’s Office “affixed no responsibility.”

Furthermore, though the data provided by the M.E.’s Office covered 1996 to the present in some detail, no mention is made in the data supplied of the outrageous death of Deborah Braillard.

She’s not even an anonymous digit. She is unaccounted for in the tally.

I wrote about Braillard’s unnecessary death in 2010.

A loving mother with a petty drug appetite, her real issue was that she was diabetic.

Though informed that she was a diabetic, the staff in the jail paid no heed.

In fact, jail records documented that she was a diabetic that needed insulin to survive.

The jailers ignored their own records.

A cellmate described Braillard:

“She was unconscious,” said Tamela Harper. “She wasn’t hardly there. She walked back to her bunk, and that was the last time I saw that lady walking. People [other prisoners] were helping her. She was throwing up constantly. The next day she started moaning and groaning and throwing up. She was basically unconscious at the time. She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t eat. The officers kept saying she was kicking heroin.”

For the next 60 hours, Deborah Braillard suffered the agonies of hell as she went into a diabetic coma.

She died because jailers did not administer insulin.

There was ample testimony that the jailers believed they could ignore her because Braillard was kicking heroin.

She was not kicking heroin.

But even had she been kicking heroin, the jailers are duty-bound to get medical attention for the effects of withdrawal.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jailers and medical staff did nothing for this woman. Later, the county would pay millions to her survivors.

So when I consider Felix Torres, who died, according to the M.E., in the hospital, I believe the M.E.’s Office has shirked its responsibility to fully monitor the deaths in Joe Arpaio’s jail.

And when I see that Deborah Braillard is not even on the M.E.’s list, I understand why Sheriff Arpaio gets away with a procession of body bags gurneyed out of his jail. The sheriff doesn’t care. The M.E.’s Office doesn’t care. The county’s Board of Supervisors doesn’t care.

And since 1993, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been bulletproof at the polls.

In the face of so much official neglect – underscored by voters’ ambivalence – Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s “My Way” might more accurately be styled “Our Way.”

This article was originally published in the Phoenix New Times ( on November 24, 2015; it is reprinted with permission.

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