Jailers Show a Paraplegic Who's Boss
Richard Post spent only a few hours in Madison Street Jail, but in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's penal colony, no stay is too short to avoid abuse.
Especially for inmates like Post, who make demands on their captors. For those kinds of troublemakers, Arpaio's jailers reserve a special form of treatment.
Call it the Madison Street Special: Jailers stuff unruly inmates into a medieval-looking restraint chair and--federal investigators have found--heap abuse on their immobilized wards.
Injuries and even a death have resulted from the use of the restraint chair, but Arpaio continues to defend its use for locking down trouble inmates.
Inmates such as Richard Post.
After all, Post, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic, had pounded on his cell door demanding that a jail nurse give him a catheter so he could urinate.
For Arpaio's jailers, it was an easy call: Post needed "chairing."
So they crammed him into the device and left him in it for six hours.
They ignored his pleas that such treatment of a paraplegic would cause serious injuries. In fact, the lower, paralyzed portions of his body were severely damaged, and Post would spend four months in bed, convalescing.
But Post's protestations fell on deaf ears. Jailers intended to teach Post a lesson he would never forget. So they strapped him down roughly into the metal contraption, and tightened its leather straps with all their might.
And broke Post's neck.
And now, almost a year after his stay in Joe Arpaio's jail, Post has lost much of the use of his arms, and faces surgery to remove a vertebra from his neck.
It's a tough penalty meted out by a tough sheriff, but then that's the avowed mission of a lawman who brags that his jails are meant to be so miserable no inmate will ever break the law again.
And that includes evildoers such as Richard Post, who has spent a total of one night in jail in his life.
His crime: possessing a gram of marijuana and calling someone an Englishman.
Nearly a year ago, the federal government told Joe Arpaio that his jails were houses of torture. Since then, several inmates have perished and others have been injured in precisely the manner U.S. Department of Justice investigators decried.
Some of the deaths and beatings have received the attention of the Valley's press. Others have not.
Buried in a Maricopa County file thousands of pages thick, claims submitted by attorneys on behalf of inmates abused and killed reveal dozens of allegations of torture and neglect which could cost the county tens of millions of dollars.
Last June--three months after federal investigators had warned Arpaio that jailers were using the restraint chair to abuse inmates--inmate Scott Norberg died while jailers attempted to stuff him into the device.
Norberg's family has filed a $4.5 million notice of claim as a result of the death.
Less well-known, however, is the beating Jane Olson says she received that very day--and only feet away from the spot where Norberg died. She, too, was strapped into a restraint chair and received injuries. She has filed a $5 million claim.
Only two days later, jailers moved inmate Michael Sanderson to a cell by himself, weeks after making the diagnosis that he was acutely suicidal. Sanderson hanged himself almost immediately. That death has prompted the inmate's family to file a $750,000 notice of claim. (Federal investigators had also warned the county about inadequate and inept handling of mentally disturbed inmates.)
Many other cases have been filed against Arpaio and his jail (see accompanying story), including one by Richard Post. Most involve the kind of violence and neglect federal investigators had specifically warned county officials occurred in Arpaio's jails.
The sheriff's reaction to the Justice Department's investigative report--which he received last March but didn't make public until July--was simply to deny the premise. He dismissed it as a fabrication of vengeful inmates, and complained that the feds had not provided him with names and dates to go along with the charges.
But Arpaio is well-aware of the names and dates of incidents which have resulted in claims against his office.
His tough talk works well with a public that may not draw a distinction between prison--where convicted criminals serve out their sentences--and Arpaio's jail, where more than 60 percent of inmates await trial under an assumption of innocence.
In Madison Street Jail, where seven of the 19 jail deaths on Arpaio's watch have occurred, almost all inmates await trial. (Most of the others occurred at the Maricopa County Medical Center, where sick and injured inmates are held.)
Some, whose only crime is not having the cash for bail, are subjected to Arpaio's notions of punishment for what may be months before their day in court.
Others are murderers and rapists and thieves who will later be convicted and transferred to state prison.
And many--perhaps the majority--have run afoul of the law in a myriad of ways endemic to the life of a growing city. Awaiting them are Wild West solutions to serious crime applied liberally to the greatest and least offenders alike.
Richard Post's incarceration is but one brutal example.
Richard Post directs his wheelchair into the dining room of his Glendale home and pulls up next to a table. On it lie the piles of paperwork that document his overnight stay last March at Madison Street Jail.
He's thin, and his shoulders are set at an angle, with his spine in a twist. Post is 36, but he wears his dark brown hair as if he were much younger: spiky short on top, long and straight down the back.
It's been 11 years since an automobile accident left him a paraplegic, and his useless legs have atrophied, leaving them very thin.
Until his arrest, however, Post had the powerful arms of a wheelchair athlete, and a special skill for billiards.
He grew up in San Jose and worked as a house painter until the accident in 1985. Since then he's held a number of jobs, including nightclub disc jockey and doorman.
Post has no designs on sainthood, but in his 36 years he's managed to purchase a home, raise a child and pursue a college degree. He was attending Glendale Community College and preparing to transfer to Arizona State University to study for a liberal arts degree when he was arrested in March.
He had, until then, no criminal record.
"I'm a pretty decent guy, I think," he says.
Abdominal pain resulting from the automobile accident continues to bother him, but otherwise Post has enjoyed good upper-body strength. In photographs taken before his arrest, he appears to have good posture and beefy chest and arms. He used his strength to power his way through wheelchair races, to challenge other men to arm-wrestling contests, and to enter national billiards tournaments.
At The Drummer, a bar in Glendale, a bartender named Linda--who asked that her last name not be published--still remembers Post and his pool shooting.
He hasn't been to the bar in a long time, she says, but he made enough of an impression--enough of a good impression--that she still remembers him by name. She confirms that Post was a very good pool shooter, and says he was very cordial.
"He was always a nice guy. He never caused us a problem and he never caused a problem with another client," she says, adding that she had wondered why he hadn't been around in a long time.
Events that led to Post's arrest began last St. Patrick's Day, when he sat at home watching Mike Tyson beat up Frank Bruno, the English boxing champion.
After the fight, about 11 p.m., Post decided to try out the St. Patrick's Day festivities at O'Connor's Pub, an Irish bar in Phoenix that a friend had told him about.
Post says he found the people there friendly, and over the next hour he consumed two drinks. When an Irish folk-rock musician finished a song, Post wheeled over to tell him the result of that evening's fight. Post figured the crowd might want to hear that the English champion had taken it on the chin.
When the musician announced that Tyson had defeated Bruno, some people in the bar cheered, and others booed. Post then started up a conversation with two couples, and a few minutes later, about 12:30, decided to leave.
That's when an older man approached him and said abruptly: "Why don't you get the hell out of here?"
"Why, did you bet on the Englishman?" Post asked him.
"I'm calling the police," the man replied, and walked off.
Post thought it was a joke, so he didn't go anywhere. Meanwhile, the man, James O'Connor, who owned the pub, did call police and asked them to remove Post.
Post was told the police were on their way, so he waited for them. (He explains that if the police wanted to talk to him, he wanted it to be in the bar rather than on the road, since he had been drinking.)
According to the report filed by Phoenix police officers Jeffrey Howell and James Ray, when they arrived and asked O'Connor what had happened, the bar owner complained that when he had asked Post to leave, the paraplegic had answered, "I think you are a Protestant and an Englishman." O'Connor told police he asked Post to leave two more times before he called police.
Howell and Ray write that they asked Post why he didn't leave when he was asked. "For what?" Post responded.
(Post points out that O'Connor had never identified himself as the owner of the bar.)
Howell and Ray found Post argumentative and "extremely intoxicated."
At least one person contradicts that view, however. And that's James O'Connor himself. O'Connor says he distinctly remembers that Post was not drunk. He called the cops, he says, because he thought Post was being rude to others in the bar.
"He just seemed like the kind of person who has four or five drinks and then becomes belligerent," O'Connor tells New Times.
O'Connor doesn't remember telling police that Post had called him an "Englishman," but he does remember Post telling him, "This isn't an Irish bar."
"That didn't bother me. I called the police because he was harassing my customers."
Post says O'Connor admitted in court that he had also been drinking that night, something Post's public defender, Anne Phillips, confirms. It was St. Patrick's Day, after all.
Officers Howell and Ray gave Post the option of calling a taxi or going to jail. Post refused to get a cab ride home, however, explaining that he never took cab rides, feeling that taking himself out of his wheelchair in the back of a taxi left him too vulnerable. He told Howell and Ray he'd gladly roll himself home, a proposition the police refused, perhaps not realizing, Post says, that the several miles to his house was no big deal for a paraplegic with the kind of upper-body strength he had.
The officers wrote that they offered to let Post leave several times, but that he turned them down, saying that they would have to arrest him first.
So they did. And when they searched him, they found in his backpack a container with 1.1 grams of marijuana and a pipe.
Post disputes the account of the police, saying that he wouldn't demand to be arrested when he was carrying pot.
Howell and Ray read Post his rights and prepared to cart him off. It's the sort of arrest resulting from alcohol-related conflicts that occurs dozens of times nightly in large and small cities. And in any other place, it would be followed by a short but sobering stay in a dreary jail.
But Post was in Maricopa County, and he was in store for much, much more.
At Madison Street Jail, Post was searched again and booked. He hadn't planned on being out all night, so he didn't have an internal catheter with him, which would allow him to urinate.
On a videotape of Post's booking provided to Post by the Sheriff's Office, Post not only appears alert and cooperative during his search--rather than intoxicated and belligerent, which jailers claim he was--but he also clearly points out to detention officers that the urine bag attached to his ankle is full. Without emptying that bag and obtaining an internal catheter, Post told them, he couldn't urinate. And he needed to go.
"This is a jail, not a hospital," Post says he was told. He says when he finally got to talk to a nurse, he told her, "I have special needs."
She responded by asking, "Do you have a medic-alert bracelet?"
"I'm in a wheelchair," Post responded.
Even weeks later, as the Sheriff's Office conducted an internal investigation to determine how Post had been injured, the jailers didn't seem to understand what Post had been asking for that night:
"I asked Sgt. [Steve] Kenner about the medical equipment that inmate Post was allegedly refused," the sheriff's investigator writes. "He said that Sgt. [Rocky] Medina had advised him that inmate Post was allowed to keep his catheter and the other necessary equipment. This was authorized by R.N. Hunter and R.N. Atkinson." (Emphasis added.)
Post did have an external catheter and bottle with him, which paraplegics use to prevent spills when they urinate. But without the internal catheter, a narrow tube about a foot long, Post could not release his urine from his bladder.
And he was worried that if he spent considerable time in the jail with his bladder so full--he was already in pain--it could bring about serious consequences. Medical literature supplied to paraplegics warns them that the single greatest killer of paraplegics is kidney disease brought on by unsanitary and infrequent urinations.
As he was wheeled to a cell, Post says a detention officer told him, "There's a big difference between what you need and what you get in here. Don't be a baby."
"They called me a pussy a couple of times," Post says.
He repeatedly tried to get the attention of jailers, to explain what pain he was in, and to get them to deliver him an internal catheter. "Shut up," he says he was told. So, in desperation, he started banging on the cell door.
Officers say he was hitting the door's window, and told them he didn't care if he broke it. But Post says he only hit the door itself in an attempt to get a nurse's attention--and that if he wanted to break the window, he easily could have with the removable metal armrest on his wheelchair.
The videotape appears to confirm Post's version of events: The tape shows Post moving close to the door, hitting it once about handle-level, and then backing away to wait for a response. He does this repeatedly, and then gives up and goes back to where the toilet is.
He wanted to empty his full urine bag into the commode before trying to make himself urinate without the internal catheter--a difficult proposition, he says, which involves manipulating his abdomen with his hands--but he couldn't reach the toilet. While he was trying, though, a roll of toilet paper fell into it, and Post got an idea.
If they wouldn't respond to his requests for assistance, he'd get their attention another way.
Post was able to reach the lever, and he began flushing the toilet, over and over.
"If you keep flushing the toilet, I'm going to turn off the water," a guard warned him when he saw what Post was doing. "I don't care, I need a catheter," he says he responded.
Water began spilling across the room, and into the hall.
Arpaio's jailers didn't like that. Sergeant Steve Kenner decided Post needed to be strapped into a restraint chair.
"We'll see how you like it in this chair," Post says Kenner told him.
By the officers' own accounts, Post did not struggle as he was put into the chair about 4 a.m. He did tell them, however, that he had to be put on his gel pad.
Like other paraplegics, Post has to sit on the pad to prevent pressure sores from forming. If he sits on something hard for as little as 15 minutes, sores that may require surgery will form.
The pad is a pliable item, like clay sealed in a sheet of wax paper and tucked into a cloth slipcover.
Detention officers Kenner and Rocky Medina strapped Post down into the hard chair without the pad.
"Put the cushion under me!" Post says he yelled at them. "You don't know what will happen to me."
"Too bad," was Kenner's response, Post says.
"Post claimed he needed a 'pad' to sit on while in the chair," Kenner wrote in a report a week after the incident. "I informed him that would be up to medical staff to provide for him. At 0410 hours, R.N. Betsy and Nursing Supervisor Kay Atkinson checked Post's restraints and stated that he would need the pad placed under him. I informed them that I needed to get the water cleaned up in that area first as the standing water was a safety hazard."
(Kenner doesn't mention that Post could have been wheeled away from the water while still in the restraint chair.)
Post pleaded with the detention officers to put the pad under him. He also complained to a nurse, telling her that the straps were constricting his shoulders so severely his hands had gone numb.
"Wiggle your fingers," she responded. So he did.
"He's fine," she told the guards. Post says the detention officers laughed at his concerns, and their smirks are visible on the videotape.
The sheriff's own investigators estimate that Post was strapped down in the restraint chair without a pad for 70 minutes. Post says it was more than two hours.
Finally, Kenner decided he had better put the pad under Post. He and another detention officer pulled Post into the hall. Post says Kenner sparked a stun gun near his ear before handing it to his partner.
"Stick him in his neck if he fucking moves," Post says Kenner uttered as he reached down to unlock one of the straps holding Post down. Post says Kenner didn't loosen up the straps enough so that Post could lift himself up far enough to get the pad properly underneath him. Instead, Kenner shoved the pad about halfway under Post's buttocks. And then, before reclasping the straps, he tightened them down even further.
To accomplish this, Post says, Kenner placed his foot on the seat between Post's legs for leverage, then pulled sharply on the straps, making them bite down hard on his shoulders.
Post--a man paralyzed below his waist--apparently was seen as enough of a threat to warrant six hours in the restraint chair. Only when Kenner went off duty and was replaced by another sergeant did detention officers release Post from the chair. Kenner did not return calls from New Times.
Post left jail later that morning and, after a short trial, was found guilty of possession of marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia, and criminal trespass. His penalty: six months probation and a $750 fine.
Post paid a heavy price for the time he spent in the restraint chair. Two hours on a hard surface gave him an ulcerated anus, which left Post bedridden for the next four months. He narrowly avoided surgery that would have required a temporary colostomy.
His time in bed forced him to drop out of college.
That wound eventually healed, but Post continued to have problems with his shoulders, neck and arms. The pain of being cinched down so tight in the chair never quite left, and gradually Post began experiencing trouble using his arms.
Months later, he sits twisted in his wheelchair, his right arm only a thin reminder of the strength he once had. He can't raise the arm higher than his shoulder, can no longer write or play billiards, and his left hand repeatedly goes numb. X-rays of Post's neck show serious problems.
On January 9, neurosurgeon Dr. Mazen H. Khayata told Post he had a broken neck.
Khayata told Post that he planned to operate, and would address the problem through the front of his neck. Khayata said he would crack open Post's sternum, remove one of Post's vertebrae, put in steel posts, and then fuse the remaining vertebrae together.
Post asked the doctor how the damage could have occurred, and Khayata told him there must have been a massive compression downward on his shoulders. Khayata asked him how that might have happened.
So Post told him. And then Khayata suddenly became agitated.
Khayata told Post that he had changed his mind and could not operate on him. It's obvious that litigation will be involved, Khayata told Post and Post's mother, and he wanted no part of it. He said he would refer the matter to another surgeon.
"All I want is for you to fix me," Post says he pleaded with Khayata, telling him that he wasn't looking for a witness to testify on his behalf. But Post and his mother say that Khayata apologized and said he wanted nothing to do with a lawsuit. The doctor did not return calls from New Times.
Khayata referred Post's case to Barrow Neurological Institute, and Post awaits word on who will perform the surgery he needs. In the meantime, his condition worsens, and he battles depression. His surgery will permanently restrict his ability to pivot his head. He also may never regain the ability to write. Or shoot pool.
"I already don't have the use of my legs. Now I'm losing the use of my arms," he says.
Post had no trouble convincing attorneys at the Arizona Center for Disability Law that he had a case against the sheriff and his jailers. But after forcing Arpaio to turn over numerous records and the videotape, Post's attorneys at the law center realized that they couldn't handle the case. The office attempts to sue for equal treatment of the disabled, not for damages resulting from mistreatment.
So Post is without an attorney, and has had trouble finding someone who wants to take on the sheriff. He initially filed a notice of claim for only $15,000 to cover the costs of losing a semester of school and some of his medical bills.
But now, as the full extent of his injuries and the effect they will have on the quality of his life have become clear, he's being encouraged to raise that figure much higher.
Post says he does want to sue, and part of his motivation is preventing similar fates for other paraplegics who may have to spend a night or more in Arpaio's jail.
In the meantime, the sheriff's detention officers continue to use the restraint chair.
In Los Angeles County, home of the largest jail in the country, jailers were asked whether they make use of restraint chairs for uncooperative inmates.
"I've never heard of such a thing," a Los Angeles detention officer answered.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.