PHOENIX (CN) – Sheriff Joe Arpaio is back in the news with a crack down on 4,000 inmates who are protesting over food and healthcare in the Maricopa County jail system. The ACLU of Arizon is engaged in a long-running war of public relations and lawsuits with Arpaio and its lawyers charge that the sheriff is cutting off all forms of communication — phone calls, televison viewing and visitation — in retaliation for a hunger strike by the inmates.
Arpaio’s office said the Towers Jail, the Fourth Avenue Jail and Lower Buckeye Jail were put on lockdown after inmates on the hunger strike began to threaten others who refused to participate.
The lockdown started Monday and prohibits visitations, phone calls and television, affecting about 4,200 inmates, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement.
“It is clear that the strike is intended to convey a message, so (Arpaio) shouldn’t be retaliating,” says Dan Pochoda, legal director of the ACLU of Arizona. Pochoda says the strike is a form of protected speech and that Arpaio’s lockdown is violating the detainees’ First Amendment rights.
Inmates are protesting the “impossible chore of eating” the jail food, Pochoda says.
“It appears that the food has become worse. The people inside only get two meals a day and they understand that (Arpaio’s actions) might be retaliatory.”
The ACLU sued the sheriff’s office in Federal Court last August over poor jail conditions ranging from rotting food to inadequate health care. U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake ruled in an injunction that detainees must be served food that meets or exceeds dietary standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Pochoda said the ACLU is not planning on taking legal action against the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office if it can get monitors into the jails to assess the situation.
“If we can’t get access, we will raise it with Judge Wake,” Pochoda said.
Inmates have participated in the strike since an anti-immigration march on May 2 that ended outside the Phoenix jails, according to the sheriff’s statement.