In Arpaio's Jails, the Most Basic Healthcare is No Better Despite Years of Lawsuits and Investigations; a Lesson Bertha Oropeza Learned the Hard Way

When Bertha Oropeza was arrested last summer for marijuana possession, she didn't expect it to nearly cost her life.

But after 10 hours in Maricopa County's Fourth Avenue jail, Oropeza was unconscious, in cardiogenic shock with acute kidney failure at Good Samaritan Hospital. Meanwhile, no one at the jail could tell her family where she was. "She's been released" was their refrain.

Oropeza, 45, had been straightforward with jail personnel about needing medication, which is reflected in jail and hospital records, as well as in Oropeza's recollection.

When she was arrested, she tells New Times, she clearly remembers telling the officer who took her purse that she would need to take her pills again in an hour.

He told her to wait until she got to the jail.

As Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's guards took her through the intake process "they asked me when I last took it, and I told them," Oropeza says. "I'm thinking, 'Okay, they're gonna give me my medication.'"

They didn't, so she tried again, telling the guard checking her into the jail that she needed her pills.

"Well, you don't need them right now," he told her. "It's your own fault. What do you think this is, a hospital?"

Oropeza's medical history is summarized in Good Samaritan Hospital records, released by Oropeza to New Times: She was in a car accident in west Phoenix in 2005 that left her disabled and with chronic back and leg pain.

Oropeza says she spent a month in a coma and five months in the hospital after she was thrown from the passenger's side of a car. Her hip "came completely out of socket," she says, and she suffered extensive head trauma after hitting the pavement.

She regularly takes the painkillers morphine and oxycodone as well as the muscle relaxant carisoprodal, according to hospital records.

Jail employees definitely knew about her condition, county records show. At 9:49 a.m. — about the time Oropeza was booked into the jail — a note was entered in her file recording that she was on medication for chronic pain in her legs and back due to a car accident.

Still, she didn't get help.

Oropeza knew what would happen next: The pain in her legs would come back, her stomach would reject anything in it, her muscles would seize up, and her lungs would tighten.

"If I don't take my medication, then I get a withdrawal right away," she says.

She had no power to stop it from coming. It did.

In the first holding cell, waiting to be fingerprinted, Oropeza asked for a bag to throw up in. A guard handed her one.

She sat on the concrete floor in the corner of the cell, vomiting into the bag until it was full, unable to move as the pain in her legs crept back and the painkillers wore off.

When she asked for a second bag, a guard told her to use the trash can on the other side of the cell. But she couldn't get up to walk over to it.

"Just don't throw up on the floor," he told her.

She was struggling to breathe and still throwing up when another woman in the cell began to kick the door to get the guard's attention. Oropeza, afraid of angering the guard, begged her not to.

"No," the woman said. "You need help. You need help now."

When the guard finally came, he walked Oropeza down a long hall and told another guard on duty there to "take her down to medical," Oropeza remembers.

Standing at the end of the hall with the new guard, Oropeza felt increasingly dizzy. She grabbed a nearby chair because she felt like she was going to faint.

"Don't touch that chair," the guard yelled.

"You don't need nothing to hold on to. You just stand there," Oropeza remembers him saying.

She asked him whether she could hold onto the wall. He told her no.

"All you're doing is putting on a show to get out of here. We get it all the time," he said.

When he took her out of the hallway, it was to yet another cell — this one right outside the medical unit, where she could see the nurses through a window.

Oropeza begged the nurses for help, miming that she couldn't breathe. She says Arpaio's guard just laughed at her. The nurses didn't come.

By about 1:30 p.m., after at least three hours of vomiting and dry heaving in a cement jail cell, Arpaio's guards finally turned her over to Correctional Health Services, the medical unit of the jail, according to records.

She was handcuffed to a gurney. When she complained of being cold, "they threw paper over me," she says.

At a few minutes before 7 p.m. on June 2, CHS staff called an ambulance to come for Bertha Oropeza. It arrived at 7:30 p.m., according to records, a full six hours after she had entered the medical unit.


It's no secret that healthcare in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jails is in critical condition. It was no secret before Bertha Oropeza went into withdrawal on the jail's concrete floor and almost died.

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18 comments
Pearyb
Pearyb

The mistreatment of prisoners has long been notorious in the Valley. Jail can be a strange place, and for many it is in the death game. Without your freedom you are the walking dead, socially I feel if the punishment doesn't fit th crime, you got a future of more crime. Stress and anger are involved with the creation of crime, criminally treating prisoners makes more criminals.

Beatnikjd
Beatnikjd

A near death sentence for mere possession of a harmless plant. Only in amerikkka!!

Jane Walters
Jane Walters

I so wish we had a system in the UK that was a little like Joe Arpaio's, here we let child murderers sue the Prison Service for compensation because they got beat up in a cell, we let prisoners have anonymity, we give them TV, Menu choice, single cells and somehow allow the drug culture to continue. We focus on the person the crime has been perpetrated against but as soon as the criminal is caught the injured parties take a back seat and the liberals do all in their power to make the prisoner 'hard done by' We in the UK should get rid of the Human rights bill pushed on us by Tony Blair and his fellow lackeys, get out of Europe and become a State of the US, then we would have a good law and order system.Jane Walters, Mablethorpe, England

Armyretiree44
Armyretiree44

ya know i could care a less about medical for prisnors.. lets think bout this. we have soldiers in COMBAT that are dying becuase they cant get to medical facilities in time beucase of location, or combat.. and here you have people that BREAK the LAW and expect the best treatment that is out there. Seems to me that the only one thats are complaining are the people that are BREAKING the law and expect to be treated like normal law abiding citizens.. I have it that some LAW breakers have medical conditions but this lady was busted for Weed.. and is addicted to Pain killers(probably on tax payers money 2).. I LOST part of my foot in COMBAT and dont expect any special treament. Just a thought though. one of many i am sure.

CC
CC

I moved to AZ from Texas in 99 and lived there for 5 years...really bizarre place, that state. Never want to live there again amongst the Arpaio weirdos wallowing in their pseudo-conservative muck. Im a real conservative, the phoney being the Bush whacko "I wanna go to Iraq and fight for our freedom" type, so many people in this country who decided to turn their brain inside out for their fuhrer Bushie...its just sickening...and AZ, a sheriff that is politically motivated...thats exactly what happened in Nazi Germany! Politically motivated kangaroo courts, judges wearing Nazi emblems.....didnt America already fight a war against that type of trash?And now, this bizarre Bush freako generation wants to bring it all back...and bring it all here!

CC
CC

As per the comment made by one poster:"The withrdawal symptoms were not going to kill her"

I really dont think sir, that you have any medical qualifications at all to make any type of conclusion like this or otherwise about drugs, especially opiates. As a degreed Chemist with a background in pharacology, I can inform you that you are wrong about that on all counts. Oxycontin withdrawl is notorious for being deadly and has taken countless lives to date. Refer to the "oxycontin tragedy" for more information about that.

Opiate addiction is known to be so painful, psycologically tramatic, and frightening, that some heroin addicts have been known to commit suicide for no other reason than to avoid going through the withdrawl.

Lets keep politics out of the subject of drugs...okay? Leave it to the doctors, pharmacologists, technitions, scientists...you know...the people that are qualified to deal with it? That would exclude neo-Nazi Repulican whackos who are convinced that they know everything when in fact they never know anything.

Do us all a favor..go to Iraq..and dont come back. Really, I dont think anyone will miss you or your political judgements about what you dont know.

gina
gina

Why is he still there. he is on the wrong side of the bars..... He is a murderer............................

So many are sent to jail that are innocent. what a shame..... This is the system we pay for.

Ben
Ben

This is the most ridiculous story ever. Although I don't think smoking marijuana should be a crime, I don't see why disallowing her to take opiates while in prison is a bad thing, nor do I see how this has any relation to Arpaio. The withrdawal symptoms were not going to kill her, and the lack of sympathy by one guard has nothing to do with Arpaio. However, if anything the guard should be praised for trying to help her quit a five-year addiction to opiates.

mary
mary

I was just in Estrell jail from March 17-April 14th. I also became very sick while I was there, kept putting in tank orders for medical. Was running high fever, chills, severe headache, couldn't barley walk. On the 2nd day I seen a nurse and she told me to just drink more water. What a joke! By the 4th day I was worse, went to medical again with same symptoms finally they let me see the docter, was given finally tylanol and the Z-pac. Why did they wait so long, don't understand. Also they violated my rights. I am disabled, from the moment I got there I explained my situation about my disability. I cannot walk without a cane do to a severe back injury, I am still in recovery from spinal surjury. The docter aproved me to get a cane, but detention had the final say. Needless to say I was never provided with a cane, nor was I given the correct pain meds. I was always told to walk faster, hurry up, tried to tell the DO's my situation and they did not care. I am going to look into fileing a law suit. I was given this advise from my lawyer who handles my Workmans Comp lawsuit. County jail is know place to be if your ill or disabled. They just don't give a damn.Mary

Peggy Plews
Peggy Plews

This is scary. The courts should really stop sending people there, especially for BS charges. Thanks for the coverage, Lauren and PNT.

Marcy
Marcy

It's such a terrible shame when people who use and abuse legal and illegal drugs suffer withdrawals.

It bothered me for about 5 seconds but now I'm over it.

Because one ding-dong didn't bother to use her seat belt society is stuck taking care of her for the rest of her life and she repays society by being a criminal.

Lovely, don't look both ways when you cross the street Ms.Oropeza

Amir
Amir

Its distrubing to read about controled jail systems treat residents of that state or any other state like animals in the wild.

I believe that Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his bandit of guards will FALL, shortly.

6616
6616

I just read this and it makes me SICK!I spent 30 days in Sheriff Joe's Tent City a DUI. I actually composed a letter to submit about the very same issue mentioned in this article. I do not take medication and I am in very good health. However, the lack of concern and care for inmates who require medication is deplorable. Medication for the inmates is not stored in a temperature-controlled environment; it is stored in a locker OUTSIDE! Last time I checked, most medication, state clearly on the bottle that you should keep them in a cool dry area, and not in an area that is over 73 degrees. These are a few examples of the lack of concern, compassion, consistency, and inventory for dispersing inmate medications that I experienced first hand:I saw a woman have a seizure for not getting her “anti seizure” medication on time. There was an elderly woman who was diabetic and did not get her medication in a timely manner on multiple occasions after BEGGING the guards and, standing in front of the little window waiting for someone to acknowledge her (as the guards sit point and laugh for about an hour). She was ultimately taken out on a stretcher...last I heard she was very close to slipping into a diabetic comma.One inmate’s medication dosage was to take four times a day. Well, medications a are only dispersed twice a day, sometimes three, never more than that. The inmate mentioned that to the guard and was told “too bad” and “no you can not take an extra pill”Medications were stolen out of the lockers, so much so that the inmates in my tent took their medications home and went without. The medications are stored outside in lockers with letter’s A-Z marked. Therefore, if your last name ends in a “C” you, go to the locker marked “C” and rummage through all the other inmates with the last “C” pull your meds out.Thing is, if you see medication that you want there is no one really stopping you from taking it. There is no sign in roster or any way of tracking who is taking what medication. There is not a medical professional onsite to monitor any of it.Most of the women who were incarcerated along with myself, where in Tent City due to DUI convictions. Yes, we made a mistake, but that is no reason to deny a person basic human needs. I have served two tours in Iraq and know first hand that we treat POW with more respect, more dignity, and more compassion than the staff at Sherriff Joe’s Tent City.

6616
6616

I just read this and it makes me SICK!I spent 30 days in Sheriff Joe's Tent City a DUI. I actually composed a letter to submit about the very same issue mentioned in this article. I do not take medication and I am in very good health. However, the lack of concern and care for inmates who require medication is deplorable. Medication for the inmates is not stored in a temperature-controlled environment; it is stored in a locker OUTSIDE! Last time I checked, most medication, state clearly on the bottle that you should keep them in a cool dry area, and not in an area that is over 73 degrees. These are a few examples of the lack of concern, compassion, consistency, and inventory for dispersing inmate medications that I experienced first hand:1.I saw a woman have a seizure for not getting her “anti seizure” medication on time. 2.There was an elderly woman who was diabetic and did not get her medication in a timely manner on multiple occasions after BEGGING the guards and, standing in front of the little window waiting for someone to acknowledge her (as the guards sit point and laugh for about an hour). She was ultimately taken out on a stretcher...last I heard she was very close to slipping into a diabetic comma.3.One inmate’s medication dosage was to take four times a day. Well, medications a are only dispersed twice a day, sometimes three, never more than that. The inmate mentioned that to the guard and was told “too bad” and “no you can not take an extra pill”4.Medications were stolen out of the lockers, so much so that the inmates in my tent took their medications home and went without. 5.The medications are stored outside in lockers with letter’s A-Z marked. Therefore, if your last name ends in a “C” you, go to the locker marked “C” and rummage through all the other inmates with the last “C” pull your meds out. Thing is, if you see medication that you want there is no one really stopping you from taking it. There is no sign in roster or any way of tracking who is taking what medication. There is not a medical professional onsite to monitor any of it.Most of the women who were incarcerated along with myself, where in Tent City due to DUI convictions. Yes, we made a mistake, but that is no reason to deny a person basic human needs. I have served two tours in Iraq and know first hand that we treat POW with more

6616
6616

I just read this and it makes me SICK!! I speng 30 days in Sheriff Joe's Tent City a DUI. I actually composed a letter to submit about the very same issue mentioned in this article. I myself do not take medication and I am in very good health. However, I saw a woman have a seizure for not getting her medication on time. There was an elderly woman who was diabetic and did not get her medication in a timely manner on multiple occcasions after BEGGING the guards to give them to her. She was ultimatly taken out on a stretcher...last I heard she was very close to slipping into a diabetic comma.

Tom
Tom

This just makes me sick to my stomach. These fucking clowns at MCSO just continue to think they are above the law. The shit never ends with these fools.

David
David

The MCSO and its "leader" are simply beyond belief! Sheriff Arpaio seems to think that anything he does is subject only to the law of Sheriff Arpaio. Has he finally become the law unto himself, above all that annoying law that the elected legislature created for the benefit of all citizens? Does he even realize how far down the path of the Constitution's destruction he has wandered, or is he simply focused on "winning" over all those that oppose him, whatever the cost?

The voters and, at the moment more importantly the judiciary, and the legislature with the power of impeachment and conviction, need to remove this man from office and investigate him, his Chief Deputy, former County Attorney Thomas and the entire MCSO leadership for their ongoing destruction of basic freedoms, human rights and Constitutional law. This is Kafkaesque in its brazen arrogance and even more arrogantly solipsistic abuses of authority and the humanity of all those he holds prisoners. I am willing to guess that Mr. Arpaio would never live in a tent, or wear pink underwear, and that he would be the first to file a bevy of lawsuits complaining about his rights being violated if he was forced to live in the same circumstances he imposes on County prisoners - even those that have been convicted of nothing and arrested for simply driving while Hispanic.

Does Sheriff Arpaio understand that disagreeing with him, opposing him politically, and not liking him or his tactics, and even just speaking rudely about him and calling him names he so richly deserves is not a crime? Or does the First Amendment not apply in Maricopa County or the Sheriff's little alternate planet? How many more people will he indict for not letting him have his complete and unfettered way in everything he wants, when he wants it, how he wants it, now, now now - not unlike my 5 year old.

This gentleman is nothing more than the essence of creeping moral and venal corruption. I honestly don't think he means to be corrupt. I am pretty sure that he simply has wandered so far down the bunny trail that he is seeing deep sea fish and calling them rabbits. Mr. Arpaio no longer has a political crisis - he now has a serious constitutional one. His complete disregard of basic human rights, his arrogant lack of accountability to anyone, his inability to work with, or submit to, the supervisory authority of the elected County Commission and the rule of the Constitution and laws of the United States and Arizona make Mr. Arpaio manifestly unfit to hold any office of trust or confidence in our government. He is no longer enforcing the law, but rather, in my opinion at any rate, operating an ongoing criminal enterprise designed to replace the rule of law with the rule of Sheriff Arpaio; enforcing his own ideas of what, and who, the fundamental rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are and who is entitled to enjoy them.

I might have a solution. Perhaps the Sheriff would like the County to pass a law allowing him, and him alone, to decide who is a criminal, and who isn't. To decide which laws count and which don't. To decide who is law abiding and who doesn't. Who is worthy of any rights at all and who is expendable, neglectable, and abusable while allowing the Sheriff to be completely excusable simply on his own say so. I even have a name for this proposed law. There was a piece of legislation passed in the 1933 called the Enabling Act. It made Hitler the law itself, answerable to no one for nothing, in Germany and led to the complete destruction of his own nation and much of the rest of the world. But no one argued with Hitler while he led them to destruction. They couldn't. Hitler made it against the law to do so.

I have been trying for a long time to understand where Mr. Arpaio is coming from in what he says, and more importantly what he does, and I am slowly coming to the realization that Sheriff Joe is not just some colorful character - he is a dangerous lunatic, or an evil, and completely sane, power monger and manipulator, or perhaps just a befuddled old man being manipulated by others. If he remains in office much longer, and his disgrace of a Chief Deputy was well with him, the citizens of Arizona may not have any law left to enforce. They will simply have Mr. Arpaio's law in Mr. Arpaio's neighborhood. That will be one dangerous and deadly neighborhood to live in. Perhaps someone should point out that his family also, like most white Americans, is an American family because of immigration. They came from somewhere else seeking a new and better life, freedom and a hopeful future. Just like all those people he throws in jail for conspiracy to smuggle themselves into America. He seems to think people want to conspire to work at some coyote's slave labor shop here in the States for years for their journey to the American Dream.

I guess I just don't get it. He has a true double standard. I respect his service in the Armed Forces, but it appears that he learned nothing from his military experience, except of course how to be a military policeman and have unfettered power over others so he felt so very much more important than they were. Nor did he learn the importance of following physician's instructions and prescriptions while serving in an Army Medical Detachment Division in France. Perhaps he feels that only MCSO personnel are entitled to proper health care, or medication that they have been legally prescribed, or life, or anything else. Perhaps he understands and simply doesn't care one little bit. Perhaps he simply doesn't understand at all. However well intentioned he may or may not be, however committed he may or may not be to the rule of law, he has now become, simply put, a disgrace to law enforcement, to decency, to his political party, to the United States and its values and beliefs, and ultimately to humanity. He has, whether through intent or incompetence or complacency or doddering senility, become all that he professes to despise and seeks to defeat. Ms. Oropeza was, after all, a human being that almost died, as many others were also human beings that have died in the custody of the MCSO, strapped to restraint chairs, mysteriously dying without cause or explanation or consequence, and denied basic human rights and dignity all the while. That denial is Mr. Arpaio's one consistency. He denies everything to everyone that is not one of his own. We are not at war with Mexico, and yet he treats people with barely a shirt on their back or a penny to their name as an invading army sent for him personally. I applaud that he goes after the coyotes, who are even worse at denying the humanity of that flood of desperation that crosses our borders every hour, seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that we take for granted and refuse to share.

It is time for Mr. Arpaio and Chief Deputy Hendershott and every other complicit leader in the MCSO to FACE justice themselves - finally.

Until then Maricopa County will be the lawless Wild West, and its people - and the freedom, hope, justice and the future to which they have a fundamental right to - will continue to wither on the vine of complacency of the politicians, prosecutors and the judiciary alike whose fear of Mr. Arpaio leave them impotent and immobilized. Left much longer, the very rule of law Mr. Arpaio claims, and swore, to uphold will die on the vine. Along with who knows how many more prisoners. And millions of dollars. And countless amounts of human dignity, human life, human liberty and the all too human pursuit of happiness and meaning. The very ideas that makes the United States of America great will die with it. Complacency will allow Sheriff Arpaio to continue to destroy all that Maricopa County holds dear.

Mr. Arpaio needs to be impeached and removed from office.

That will require the Legislature to have the courage to act. Now.

Alan
Alan

Methadone is never dispensed in the county jails. This means that anyone who is legally prescribed methadone and taking it when jailed goes through full immediate withdrawal. All medical experts agree that it is only safe to reduce methadone by 5% per week. It is NEVER safe and ALWAYS life threatening to withdraw completely all at once "cold turkey" from methadone. The county jails place dozens of inmates at risk of death every day with "cold turkey" methadone withdrawals. This is a known medical fact. Methadone is a legal medical drug that should be dispensed in jails if prescribed outside by a legal MD. Other states do this but not AZ. This is a crime that is killing people. Addiction is a brain disease that should not be punished by withdrawing necessary drugs in jails in an effort to kill the unfortunate and needy sick.

 
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