Arpaio's Jails Lose Essential National Accreditation While Awaiting Federal Ruling

By John Dickerson

The National Commission on Correctional Health Care, or NCCHC, has revoked the accreditation of all Maricopa County jails. The decision is a huge blow to Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the county – as this was the jails' only third-party accreditation.

Among other causes, the NCCHC found Arpaio's staff guilty of “providing false information” about the jails' true conditions, according to an affidavit filed today by Dennis Wilenchik, a private attorney hired by the county for this and other matters. The claim of false information aligns with New Times' findings last December and this month about jail conditions and records.

The NCCHC wrote the following letter to Arpaio (click to view the entire letter) on September 25, 2008:

“Dear Sheriff Arpaio: The Accreditation Committee of the [NCCHC], during its meeting on September 25, 2008, terminated the accreditation of all Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office jails for failure to maintain compliance with national standards and providing false information about such compliance. The loss of accreditation is effective as of this date."

No accreditation is more important than the NCCHC’s. During lawsuit trials, Wilenchik and other county attorneys have repeatedly touted the NCCHC accreditation as a third-party confirmation that Maricopa’s jail standards are humane and constitutional.

The news that the essential accreditation has been withdrawn comes at the worst imaginable moment for Arpaio and the county. They, along with the ACLU and attorney Debra Hill (of the firm Osborn Maledon), have been anxiously awaiting a ruling about jail conditions from U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake in a landmark case.

The federal judge oversaw the most recent trial in Hart vs. Arpaio (formerly known as Hart vs. Hill), a class-action lawsuit brought by inmates awaiting trial in the jails. The pretrial detainees and their attorneys argued that the jails fail to meet minimum physical and mental healthcare standards guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

Repeatedly, plaintiffs' attorneys Hill and the ACLU's Peggy Winter argued that NCCHC accreditation alone does not guarantee that jail conditions are constitutional. The county's attorneys consistently replied that NCCHC approval did equal constitutional minimums and that past lawsuits only bind the county to NCCHC accreditation and nothing more.

The withdrawal of the NCCHC accreditation should now mean (under the county's own assessment) that the MCSO is not in fact meeting constitutional minimums, nor is it complying with past court orders that require it to maintain NCCHC accreditation.

The NCCHC's letter made the matter quite clear: "We regret that the jails have not been able to maintain compliance with NCCHC’s standards and provided information that was not accurate," the letter concluded. "We sincerely hope that health services at the jails improve to the point that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office can once again achieve NCCHC accreditation.”

For those familiar with conditions in Maricopa County jails, the decision from the NCCHC is hardly shocking.

As New Times has reported, the jails' own correctional health-care expert resigned in February 2008, citing unconstitutional conditions. Dr. Todd Wilcox also cited the growing number of lawsuits the county has been losing. These lawsuits were quantified and explored by New Times, two months before his resignation, in this December 20 story.

More information about the NCCHC decision and about the Hart vs. Arpaio ruling will be posted as it develops.

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