Death Sentence

Maricopa County jail personnel handled an unruly prisoner so harshly that he died. So what else is new?

In Agster's case, Arpaio testified that the Correctional Health Services nurse -- even though she is a county employee -- was not under his direct control. He claimed it was her decision to require guards to take action.

"You're not telling the jury, are you, that if a nurse says to the detention officers, 'I want this sick inmate chaired,' they will chair that inmate no matter what?" Manning asked Arpaio.

Arpaio answered that he was indeed.

Prisoners die in these chairs often enough that Amnesty International has called to abolish their use.
Mark Poutenis
Prisoners die in these chairs often enough that Amnesty International has called to abolish their use.
Victim Charles Agster didn't get CPR for more than four and a half minutes.
Victim Charles Agster didn't get CPR for more than four and a half minutes.

Manning then pointed out to Arpaio that allowing the nurse to independently make a decision to "chair" a detainee known to be mentally ill and under the influence of dangerous drugs violates the sheriff's office's written policies and procedures.

Arpaio disagreed, again claiming it is the MCSO's policy to allow a Correctional Health Services nurse to make such a decision.

"Their main mission is to protect the inmate, and I'm going to say again that we take direction from the medical expert, which in this case was the nurse," Arpaio testified.

Manning asked Arpaio whether there was written agreement between the sheriff's office and Correctional Health Services giving CHS the authority to order a person to be involuntarily strapped into a restraint chair.

"I don't know," Arpaio replied.

What about a verbal agreement, Manning asked.

"I don't know," Arpaio testified.

Arpaio did not know because there is no evidence of a formal agreement delegating such decision-making authority to CHS.

A few minutes later, Manning introduced a sheriff's office document that demonstrated detention officers also failed to obey a written policy requiring that mentally ill detainees be examined by a member of the jail's psychiatric staff before placement in a restraint chair.

Arpaio testified that the nurse -- who is not a member of the psychiatric staff -- can override the sheriff's office's written procedures on the proper handling of mentally ill detainees.

Even though no evidence exists of an agreement granting such authority to the nurse!

Manning deftly demonstrated that America's toughest sheriff was hiding under the skirt of a nurse by cowardly blaming her in the death of a mentally ill prisoner under the influence of drugs.

Arpaio's attorneys argued that Agster died from ingesting methamphetamine and several other drugs, and that detention officers acted reasonably and properly. They point to the county medical examiner's report that finally concluded Agster's methamphetamine level was sufficient to have produced cardiac arrhythmia.

They naturally downplayed the medical examiner's initially listing the cause of Agster's death as positional asphyxia and drug ingestion. The county ME only dropped suffocation resulting from the forced placement in the restraint chair as a contributing cause of death after meeting with Arpaio's attorneys, which is fishy.

Charles Agster clearly was a very troubled man who had ingested dangerous drugs on the night he was taken to jail. His elderly parents were taking him to the hospital for treatment when he asked to stop at a convenience store.

Once inside the market, Agster began acting strangely, and police were called to remove him. Police literally hog-tied Agster with handcuffs and straps before delivering him to the jail.

A video shows Arpaio's jailers dragging Agster across the floor of the receiving area on his stomach. Moments later, Agster is seen being forced into the restraint chair (again, this was absent any legally required medical and psychiatric evaluation). These were his final desperate moments of consciousness.

I believe there is a very good chance Agster would have survived the night if he had not been forcibly placed into the restraint chair -- an action that he fought with all his strength, just as most of us would have done under similar circumstances.

I have no idea if the jury will agree with my assessment, but there is no doubt that Arpaio's 14 years of leadership have spawned a culture in the jails where human rights are mostly ignored.

This is not Singapore. Taking illegal drugs in America does not condemn a detainee to the death penalty -- although in Arpaio's jails a suspect incarcerated for reputedly being under the influence of drugs or booze is treated worse than a sober cold-blooded murderer.

Also, let's say for a moment that the nurse does have the ultimate responsibility for whether to put an inmate in the restraint chair (even though evidence shows that no such agreement has ever been struck by Arpaio). What a dumb and callous policy, particularly when the nurse is not even present when the detainee is strapped in. And particularly since the nurse obviously is not a psychiatrist or psychologist.

There is little doubt that the nurse is partly at fault here, but aren't jail conditions the ultimate responsibility of the county sheriff? Aren't the people he and the county hire to work in the jail, whether from another county agency or not, his responsibility?

And I'm not even getting into whether the sheriff should be stocking the medieval restraint chairs in question in this case, which has many parallels to the infamous county jail death by asphyxiation of Scott Norberg ("Jail Suits Could Cost County Taxpayers Tens of Millions," January 23, 1997).

Many of us are way past being disgusted and offended by Arpaio. His heinous actions and gloating demeanor are well documented in hundreds of thousands of words written in New Times over the years.

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