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Thursday, May 30, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Arpaio’s Jails Still|Need Court Oversight

PHOENIX (CN) - Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jails must remain under court supervision, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, to ensure that pretrial detainees have access to medical care.

The 37-year-old class action claims that Maricopa County jails knowingly disregard pretrial detainees' health needs. In 2012, U.S. District Judge Neil V. Wake found that the county had cured problems with jail food and sanitation, but still had a number of healthcare issues to fix.

In August 2013, Maricopa County requested termination of the court's supervision of its jails, claiming it had complied with Wake's 2008 order to correct health risks by implementing new procedures and policies. The county claimed its mental health referrals had increased by almost 13 percent, and that nearly half of the inmates booked were identified as needing further medical evaluation.

The American Civil Liberties Union - which joined the class action in 2008 - challenged the county's request in March, claiming the county has inadequate mental health programs, places mentally ill prisoners in isolation, and fails to send inmates to a "higher level of care when needed."

Judge Wake on Tuesday agreed with the ACLU's claims.

"Defendants now have at least one medical provider and additional mental health staff assigned to the jail's intake center 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," Wake wrote. "But they have not shown they have resolved systemic deficiencies in providing pretrial detainees timely face-to-face assessment by medical and mental health providers for serious acute or chronic complex conditions."

The jails have housing for male pretrial detainees who need monitoring while suffering from withdrawal from drugs or alcohol, but do not have a similar program for female detainees or male detainees who need suicide monitoring, Wake found.

"Judge Wake found severe problems with the jails' medical care, from intake to treatment. Detainees have had serious illnesses that the jails' staff missed or ignored, causing permanent injuries and even deaths," said Eric Balaban, staff attorney for the ACLU's National Prison Project. "With today's decision, every detainee at Maricopa County should have access to adequate medical and mental health care. At last."

The ruling finds there were two suicides in the jails in 2013, an increase from none in 2012.

"Defendants have not shown that seriously mentally ill pretrial detainees who are confined to single cells for 22 or more hours a day have face-to-face communication with mental health staff at least twice per week," Wake wrote. "Defendants have not shown that mental health staff is consulted before a pretrial detainee identified as being seriously mentally ill is placed in any type of segregated confinement."

Many pretrial detainees are held in isolation, and the longer a pretrial detainee with a mental illness is held in isolation, "the greater the risk the pretrial detainee's mental condition will deteriorate."

In 2011, the Durango jail implemented an opiate withdrawal program for detainees. The jail is licensed to provide methadone only to pregnant detainees, however.

"Defendants have not shown that pretrial detainees in withdrawal who are not placed in the Durango withdrawal unit or the infirmary consistently receive adequate monitoring and treatment in their assigned housing units," the ruling states.

Wake outlines a plan for Maricopa County to meet compliance with his order by September 2015, including assessing pretrial detainees discharged from suicide watch, making documentation of all prescriptions administered to detainees, and placing suicidal detainees in "a suicide-resistant cell."

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