PHOENIX — Maricopa County officials in metro Phoenix are asking a judge to
end his oversight over medical and mental health care services for inmates who
are awaiting trial in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jails.
The oversight by U.S. District Judge Neil Wake arises from a 36-year-old
lawsuit over jail conditions. The judge is examining the issue in an evidentiary
hearing that began last week and is expected to wrap up Thursday.
Five years ago, Wake concluded the county provided inadequate medical and
mental health care, unsanitary conditions and unhealthy food inside the jails.
The judge’s supervision of the sheriff’s office effectively ended in May 2012
when Wake ruled that deficiencies in food and sanitary conditions at the jails
had been corrected sufficiently. But the judge continued his oversight of the
jails’ medical and mental health operations, which are run by the county, not
The county is seeking an end to Wake’s supervision, saying the county has
made strides in making the changes required by the judge, such as expanding
screenings for medical issues, suicidal risks and other issues for people who
are entering jail. The county also said there are no current systemic
constitutional violations within the jails.
Lawyers who pushed the lawsuit said medical and mental health care for inmates
is still plagued by deficiencies.
They said the care for inmates is inadequate and exposes them to unreasonable
risk of harm. They said the jails routinely fail to send patients to a higher
level of care when needed, have inadequate suicide prevention and defective
medication management practices. “It’s a dangerous system for people who are
mentally ill,” said Gabriel Eber, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties
Union who urged Wake to continue his supervision of the jails.
Arpaio aide Jack MacIntyre said there are no systematic constitutional problems
remaining within the jails and that the county’s jail system can address any
problems that pop up here and there.
“We are operating a constitutionally fair detention system,” MacIntyre said.
Arpaio became a national political fixture, in part, through his jail policies,
such as jailing inmates in tents and dressing them in pink underwear. The
sheriff’s jail conditions, however, have been a regular source of criticism of
Arpaio and have resulted in lawsuits, including wrongful death claims. Since
Arpaio took office in 1993, the county has paid about $25 million in settlements
and judgments over treatment in county jails.
County spokeswoman Cari Gerchick declined to comment on the county’s request to
end the judge’s oversight.