Detention Mounts

While he spends lavishly on new offices, a bulletproof car and new employees to fight cat mutilations, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has so understaffed the county's jails that inmates are threatened by disease outbreaks, and taxpayers could face new lawsuits.

Documents, including duty rosters, sick-call rosters and jail-shift records, show that the county's jails are so severely shorthanded that some inmates have been housed for up to six months without an initial medical screening. That increases the possibility that tuberculosis, hepatitis and other diseases will spread in the jails among both inmates and employees.

Moreover, Arpaio is violating a court order requiring that inmates be medically screened within 14 days of being housed at the jail.

Inmates have also been denied recreation because of understaffing, the records show. "No recreation due to staff shortage," says a notation on jail records which show that for dozens of days in January and February, inmates were not let out of their cells.

Other records show that day after day, a dozen or more posts in the Madison Street Jail simply went unstaffed, including medical posts.

Lack of staff has been an ongoing problem at the county jails. More than a year ago, consultants hired to study the need for new jails in Maricopa County concluded that before the county spent a dime on new buildings, it should dramatically raise staffing levels in existing jails.

The consultants criticized Arpaio for making poor use of the staff he did have, and singled out the chain gangs as particularly wasteful programs: "One must question the rationale for utilizing two detention officers to supervise 15 inmates in a chain gang when two officers are used to supervise 200 inmates in dormitories at the Durango Jail. . . . This consultant would recommend suspending this program and re-assigning the detention officers back into the jails until such time as there is adequate staff to safely supervise the inmates housed inside of the jails."

Arpaio ignored the suggestion and kept his chain gangs. He's also ignored the need for more jail staffing while continuing to spend resources on new offices and a bulletproof car. The car alone cost $70,000, according to sheriff's records. Arpaio has repeatedly refused to provide records of expenditures for the lavish new offices on the 19th floor of the Wells Fargo building. A visit to the offices by New Times reporters was also refused, but deputies say the sheriff has furnished his new digs with expensive appointments.

"It's plush. Leather couches, all new office furniture. Plush carpeting. Big television, conference tables, a private bathroom," says Ken Gerberry, secretary-treasurer of the Maricopa County Deputies Association, which represents 350 deputies and detention officers.

"It's a lot more lavish than his last office. They didn't bring over the furniture they already had, they bought all new things. I didn't see a single old desk up there."

Gerberry says the employees he represents are frustrated that their boss has devoted so much of the office's resources to his personal comfort and constant publicity-seeking than to fighting crime and running the jails.

Besides a critical lack of detention officers, Gerberry says there are other ways Arpaio's management of resources is threatening the public. "We're short cars on the west side. We need more officers out there as well. You see the violence in Phoenix. It was 23 minutes the other day for a deputy to get back-up. When I was a deputy, we got response time down to 10 minutes. It's gone back up."

Although the sheriff's office continually advertises for new detention officers, Gerberry says retention of officers has been difficult because of the conditions in understaffed jails.

Arpaio's spokeswoman Lisa Allen refused to comment either on the records or the comments of detention officers. "We're not dealing with you anymore," she says, saying that the sheriff's office won't answer New Times questions.

Sick-call rosters for Madison Street Jail in February and March were obtained by New Times. The rosters detail when inmates are taken to the infirmary for medical treatment, both for specific ailments as well as initial medical screenings. The records show that most inmates had already been locked up for two or three months before they were screened. And a few had even spent six months incarcerated with no medical assessment.

Gerberry contends that his detention officers are at risk of catching disease when inmates wait so long to be screened, and he argues that taxpayers face more lawsuits from inmates over poor medical care. A list prepared by the sheriff's office shows that 21 current lawsuits face the county over medical treatment of inmates.

"It's more than just liability. It's public health. The liability pales in comparison to the potential public health hazard," says Ted Jarvi, an attorney who has represented inmates in a successful class-action suit, Hart v. Hill, which set minimum standards of inmate care in the jails. "The whole idea of the jail being a cesspool of disease has always been a major concern. . . . It's a public health hazard, not just a jail health hazard."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega