Hangin' With Sheriff Joe

Detention officers at Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Madison Street Jail made a grisly discovery on August 9. In the sixth-floor psychiatric ward, they found 44-year-old inmate Thomas Bruce Cooley hanging from bedsheets that he had tied to one of his cell's air vents.

Cooley was cut down and taken to Barrow Neurological Institute, where he died the following day.

A week later, on August 15, jailers found inmate Juan Vasquez, 38, hanging from bedsheets tied to another air vent, this time in the fourth-floor infirmary. Vasquez died two days after he was hospitalized.

The suicides come at a time when Arpaio is still recovering from bad publicity about other deaths and beatings in his jails, which he boasts are the toughest in the country.

In March, U.S. Department of Justice investigators, responding to numerous complaints about jail conditions, concluded a six-month probe by telling Arpaio that his employees were violating the constitutional rights of inmates and that his jail was a disaster waiting to happen.

Among the complaints: Prisoners were being abused after they were immobilized in restraining chairs. Three months later, inmate Scott Norberg died when detention officers attempting to put him into a restraining chair held him in a position that cut off his brain's supply of oxygen.

The Justice report also warned that Arpaio wasn't doing enough to prevent suicides, and it specifically complained that inmates could use "overhanging structures" in the psych ward to hang themselves.

"Given that acutely psychotic patients are housed at Madison jail, psychiatric housing there is dangerous," states the March 25 report, which Arpaio didn't make public until July 3.

"The nursing station is a considerable distance from the psychiatric beds and is separated from the unit by locked security doors and several different rooms," the report says. ". . . Acute psychiatric patients should not be allowed on this unit unless major structural and staffing deficiencies are corrected."

In its reply to the report, the county's Correctional Health Services, which operates the medical facilities in Arpaio's jails, states that "CHS is cognizant of the less than optimal structural arrangement of the Madison Jail In-patient Psychiatric Unit which was constructed to house general population inmates." CHS also states that its suggested remedies have been turned down by the Sheriff's Office for budgetary reasons.

The Justice report found several other reasons to complain about how the county jails handle mentally ill inmates:

* Jail psychiatrists are responsible for both caring for patients and determining if they are fit to stand trial, a conflict of interest. (CHS says the report is mistaken, and that the two functions have been separate since 1994.)

* There has been no increase in professional psychiatric staffing since 1985, when there were 2,400 inmates. (Now there are more than 6,000.) Only one of the jails' five psychiatrists works full-time year-round.

* Justice investigators found that psychiatric screening of inmates is done poorly, when it is done at all, by detention officers who "are self-trained or train each other." The report states that it is not uncommon for the staff to miss severely mentally ill inmates. ("Unfortunately," CHS responds, "the extremely limited space available for booking and the lack of funding for Correctional Health have limited these tasks.")

* Inmates detoxifying--who may face life-threatening conditions--are thrown into the psych ward and monitored poorly. "I was told, for example," writes a Justice Department investigator whose name was redacted from the report, "that one psychiatric patient who was confused had a stat lab done. It took over a day to discover his life-threatening abnormality . . . when discovered he was rushed to a hospital." (CHS says this shouldn't happen: "If the person has urgent medical needs that cannot be handled in jail, the nurse will refer the person to the hospital and the jail will refuse to accept him.")

When Arpaio finally made the Justice Department's report public--at five o'clock the afternoon of July 3, as many of his constituents were leaving town for the holiday--he played down its importance, complaining that it lacked specifics.

Arpaio's spokesman, Lieutenant Tim Campbell, says the sheriff declined to comment about the suicides, saying that it was a matter for CHS to handle.

CHS representative Susan Svitak was unavailable for comment.
Dale Shumway, a Mesa attorney who represents the family of Scott Norberg, says that it's troubling that inmates have died after investigators had pointed out problems in Arpaio's jails.

"The recommendations by the Justice Department were not made in a frivolous manner. It would seem to me you would take those suggestions into account and do something about it," Shumway says.

The Norbergs are still awaiting autopsy and other reports that Arpaio had promised to deliver weeks ago on the death of their son.

New Times has repeatedly asked to see county records of medical requests by inmates, but the Sheriff's Office says those records are too voluminous to turn over. The department did turn over summaries of some of the deaths that have occurred since Arpaio took office in 1993. Counting Cooley and Vasquez, 17 inmates have died in custody, the Sheriff's Office reports, with all but four deaths occurring in Ward 41, a detention ward at Maricopa Medical Center.

Cooley and Vasquez were the first inmates to die since Scott Norberg's highly publicized demise June 1. The son of an APS executive, Norberg had been arrested for aggravated assault on a Mesa police officer.

Cooley had been arrested on July 31 by the Phoenix Police Department for felony robbery. Vasquez had been picked up by Phoenix police for theft. Both were described by the Sheriff's Office as transients.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega