Hog-Tied by the Truth
On March 1, 1994, while awaiting trial on burglary, county jail inmate Matthew Creamer was beaten so badly there were blood blisters in his ears.
Creamer filed numerous grievances, saying that he had been the victim of an unprovoked attack.
But his attackers, two Maricopa County detention officers, swore that wasn't true. Creamer had started the trouble, they asserted.
Creamer had thrown spitballs at them, they said.
In 1995, acting as his own attorney, Creamer filed suit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio and numerous detention officers in federal court. Last summer, after two years of legal wrangling, county taxpayers shelled out $10,000 to Creamer, a convicted felon now sitting in state prison, to prevent his case from going any further.
Now, a new federal report on jail conditions makes it likely that taxpayers will be on the hook for even more lawsuits--especially when they're handled by crack attorneys and not, like Creamer, inmates struggling to argue cases on their own.
The report, released last Friday, is the second to find a pattern of inmate abuse by jail employees. It comes as inmate lawsuits against Arpaio totaling tens of millions of dollars are making their way through the legal system.
For nearly a year, Arpaio has refused to release the report while claiming that it "vindicated" him and his staff from earlier federal findings that inmates were subject to an unconstitutional pattern of abuse.
Made public by the County Attorney's Office last week, the new report does not, as Arpaio claimed, overturn those earlier findings.
In fact, it lays out a damning pattern of abuses in Maricopa County's jails.
Its author, George Sullivan, an Oregon corrections consultant, found that an unwise abundance of stun guns, pepper spray, restraint chairs and the practice of hog-tying, combined with Arpaio's macho rhetoric about getting tough on inmates--70 percent of whom await trial under an assumption of innocence--has led to an environment where Arpaio's employees have made "unprovoked, unnecessary and, consequently, unjustified and excessive" use of force.
Attorneys suing Arpaio say that's precisely what they've been arguing in court. And now they can enter Sullivan's report as evidence that they're right.
"This report is devastating," says Patti Shelton, who represents several inmates bringing lawsuits against the sheriff. "If we had paid someone to write it, it couldn't have been better.
"Don't you have to assume that the Sheriff's Office thought they could keep this report hidden from the public? Arpaio's characterization of it as a vindication is just unbelievable," she says.
Reached at home on Sunday, Arpaio denied that the report would have much impact. "This isn't fact. They had no names, places or anything. It was all innuendo," he says.
Arpaio said the same things about the first report on the federal jails probe, which was prepared for the Department of Justice by Eugene Miller in March 1996. Arpaio claimed that Miller had been duped by inmate lies when he reported that inmates were subject to severe abuse, including an unnamed inmate who had been strapped to a restraint chair and then stunned in the testicles.
But Sullivan's report contains a wealth of specifics such as inmate names, dates of incidents, and references to videotapes and grievance forms.
Sullivan's report also backs up--rather than contradicts--Miller's earlier findings of brutality.
Miller's report, for example, had recommended that Arpaio prohibit the dangerous practice of hog-tying inmates in his jails. Sullivan writes that the Sheriff's Office denied hog-tying occurs. The sheriff's staff said no one had been trained in hog-tying and that the practice had not been used in 10 years, Sullivan notes.
But several inmates insisted that they had been hog-tied or had seen others hog-tied, and a jail captain admitted that some inmates had been hog-tied to remove them from cells, Sullivan says. And nearly every inmate interviewed by U.S. attorney Mark Masling, who accompanied Sullivan on his inspection, also claimed to have witnessed hog-tying.
Sullivan's conclusion: He finds the inmates more credible.
Like Miller, Sullivan also condemns the use of restraint chairs in county jails. He cites the death of Mesa's Scott Norberg, who was asphyxiated in a restraint chair June 1, 1996, as well as the March 1997 death of an inmate in Utah who was left in a restraint chair for 16 hours.
Sullivan also describes the case of Maricopa County inmate Calvin Anderson, who was strapped into a restraint chair for more than four hours without a single documented medical check.
After two hours, Anderson was given a "bathroom break." Sullivan asks: If Anderson was let out of the chair to use the toilet, why would he need to be returned to the chair for an additional two hours?
The case seems proof that the Sheriff's Office uses the chair as a form of punishment, rather than as a means of gaining control of problem inmates. Sullivan doesn't mention a particularly egregious example of this: the March 1996 chairing of paraplegic Richard Post, who was put into a restraint chair as punishment for making his cell toilet overflow. Post, a man paralyzed below the waist, was strapped down so tightly detention officers broke his neck.
Sullivan also found that the inmate-grievance system is "dysfunctional," and that of 21 grievances he examined, not one had been handled correctly by the Sheriff's Office. "Without grievance consideration as a resource, as an 'outlet,' the inmate is more likely to become angry, aggressive and resort to force," Sullivan writes.
Matthew Creamer resorted to another outlet. After filing repeated grievances over his 1994 beating, he took Arpaio and his detention officers to federal court. Although he had no money and was sitting in a prison cell in Florence, for nearly two years Creamer held off repeated attempts by the county to dismiss his lawsuit. Then, in December 1996, Creamer hired Patti Shelton, Joel Robbins and Nick Hentoff as his attorneys. (None of them would comment on Creamer's case, citing confidentiality agreements.)
"Sheriff Arpaio . . . is aware that there is a pattern and practice of excessive use of force on the part of MCSO jail staff and not only allows such practice but also condones it by failure to adequately train and discipline detention officers," Creamer's attorneys wrote in a legal brief. As they had in other cases, the attorneys introduced public statements made by Arpaio as proof that through his speeches he'd given his employees the green light to abuse inmates.
Six months after the pleading, county finance records show, the county cut a check to Creamer for $10,000.
Sullivan's conclusion mirrors the arguments made by attorneys representing inmates. "These [policies] are being made within the context of considerable public rhetoric presenting a 'get tough' and 'make conditions so miserable they will never want to come back' attitude. On the basis of my 42 years in Corrections, under these conditions, I can only forecast that the 'Quality of Life' in your Jail environments will deteriorate and that, concurrently, your needs to use force will increase. It is all professionally regrettable."
Robbins says Arpaio's refusal to release the report will backfire on the county. In federal civil-rights cases filed by inmates, attorneys' fees can be awarded, and the longer cases are dragged out, Robbins says, the more expensive it can be for the county to settle them. "It's Arpaio not wanting to admit that he's made a mistake. Maybe pounding the war drum and dressing his troops in combat boots isn't the right thing."
Arpaio says the report will have no effect on his policies.
"Inmates have no facts. They just talk," he says of the report.
Shelton says that doesn't surprise her. "Arpaio is just going to blow it off. He's blown off a respected international human-rights organization [Amnesty International, which condemned many of Arpaio's practices last summer]. And now he's blown off two federal investigators," she says. "How did he become an expert on correctional management since he has no [corrections] credentials? He's nothing but a politician."
The report comes just one day after Arpaio announced he wouldn't run for governor. The proximity of the two events leads some to wonder about a connection.
"There's no question. If he'd announced for governor, he would have been inundated with tough media scrutiny. He's weighed all of those things. If he knew the [Sullivan] report was coming out and it was going to be negative, that would have weighed heavily on his decision," says Tom Bearup, who was once Arpaio's top political aide. Bearup has recently been critical of Arpaio's policies--policies he helped put in place.
Arpaio says the report didn't influence his decision. He says he knew the report was nearing release, but that he didn't know the county attorney would release it Friday. He told reporters last week he thinks he would win a governor's race.
But Bearup disagrees. "I think he realized that he didn't have the support that he would need. I don't think there was any pressure from the Republican party itself, but I think he's heard from Republicans individually that they didn't want him to run."
Bearup may be right. Thursday night, after Arpaio had announced his intentions not to run, KPHO-TV, Channel 5, conducted an unscientific poll among its viewers, asking if they thought Arpaio would have made "a good governor."
Eighty-three percent said "No."
Contact Tony Ortega at his online address: email@example.com
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.