Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio likes to boast about all the attention he receives from the national media, mostly for the spartan life of jail inmates. Now his jails are the focus of a different kind of national spotlight--an investigation by the United States Department of Justice.
New Times has learned that the civil rights division of the Justice Department is investigating whether the constitutional rights of Maricopa County jail detainees and inmates are being violated.
In a letter to county officials dated August 8, Deval Patrick, Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Civil Rights, announced that the investigation would be conducted under a federal civil statute which allows for investigations of patterns of abuse and other inappropriate treatment in jails and prisons.
Arizona U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano, whose office is assisting in the investigation, says, "While I cannot comment on the actual allegations that gave rise to [the investigation], they have nothing to do with the more publicly known policies of the jail, like the no coffee, the tents, the baloney sandwiches. That is not what this investigation is about at all."
According to the August 8 letter, the investigation will focus on, but will not be limited to, allegations received by the Justice Department regarding:
physical abuse of inmates by staff
inadequate supervision of staff
staff and administrative failure to address allegations of physical abuse
failure to discipline staff found to have abused detainees and inmates
false reporting regarding use of force and allegations of abuse
denial of access to counsel
inadequate medical care
Deval explains that attorneys from his office and the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office will review documents and inspect the jail facilities, which include Madison Street Jail, Durango Towers, Estrella Jail and Tent City.
Arpaio, who received a copy of the letter, says he's aware of the investigation (he insists on calling it an "inquiry") but says the attorneys have not begun their review yet. Arpaio says he welcomes them.
He says, "I was a high Justice [Department] official with the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration]. If I can let all the press from around the world come into the jail and talk to the inmates and everything, I'm sure not one to hide anything."
However, Sergeant John Kleinheinz, a public information officer for the Sheriff's Office, tells New Times his office will not release inmate complaints regarding jail personnel if the complaints were processed through the office's internal affairs division.
Arpaio says, "I've taken action already" with regard to alleged assaults by jail staff. He says he's fired two guards in the past three months, and the men will be prosecuted. In addition, Arpaio says, he's released a training video on the use of force that each guard is required to see.
One case that remains unresolved involves a detainee named Eric Johnson. According to reports in the daily press, a security camera inside the Madison Street Jail videotaped an incident in which a jailer and two other detention officers slammed Johnson against a wall and broke his arm. Johnson was being held on a traffic warrant.
The video was aired on the CBS Evening News. According to the daily's account, when asked about whether he was aware of the incident, Arpaio replied, "No, I'm not, but so what? . . . I'm sure that my officers had a reason to slam him against the cellblock."
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Kevin VanNorman, one of the attorneys representing Johnson, says Johnson's claim against the county has not been resolved. He calls Arpaio "a sheriff who doesn't care about his inmates in the sense of how they are treated. He doesn't care if they are physically abused or beaten."
Justice Department officials refused to comment on the specifics of the investigation. Justice spokesman Myron Marlin says it's typical to notify officials of such an investigation before it begins. He says that once an investigation is completed, jail officials receive 49 days to resolve the matter. The Justice Department can ask the courts to issue an order to tell jail/prison officials to correct conditions deemed unconstitutional.
As of April, 3,081 of the Maricopa County jails' 5,118 inmates had not been convicted of a crime. Observers say the percentage is even higher now. Arpaio says the jail system set a new record on Monday--the total number of inmates has grown to 6,050.
Napolitano says she's received full cooperation from everyone involved--including the county Board of Supervisors, County Attorney's Office and Arpaio. She says, "We've all agreed that what we're interested in is running a strict but safe jail.