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In Arpaio's Jails, the Most Basic Healthcare is No Better Despite Years of Lawsuits and Investigations; a Lesson Bertha Oropeza Learned the Hard Way

When Bertha Oropeza was arrested last summer for marijuana possession, she didn't expect it to nearly cost her life.

But after 10 hours in Maricopa County's Fourth Avenue jail, Oropeza was unconscious, in cardiogenic shock with acute kidney failure at Good Samaritan Hospital. Meanwhile, no one at the jail could tell her family where she was. "She's been released" was their refrain.

Oropeza, 45, had been straightforward with jail personnel about needing medication, which is reflected in jail and hospital records, as well as in Oropeza's recollection.

When she was arrested, she tells New Times, she clearly remembers telling the officer who took her purse that she would need to take her pills again in an hour.

He told her to wait until she got to the jail.

As Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's guards took her through the intake process "they asked me when I last took it, and I told them," Oropeza says. "I'm thinking, 'Okay, they're gonna give me my medication.'"

They didn't, so she tried again, telling the guard checking her into the jail that she needed her pills.

"Well, you don't need them right now," he told her. "It's your own fault. What do you think this is, a hospital?"

Oropeza's medical history is summarized in Good Samaritan Hospital records, released by Oropeza to New Times: She was in a car accident in west Phoenix in 2005 that left her disabled and with chronic back and leg pain.

Oropeza says she spent a month in a coma and five months in the hospital after she was thrown from the passenger's side of a car. Her hip "came completely out of socket," she says, and she suffered extensive head trauma after hitting the pavement.

She regularly takes the painkillers morphine and oxycodone as well as the muscle relaxant carisoprodal, according to hospital records.

Jail employees definitely knew about her condition, county records show. At 9:49 a.m. — about the time Oropeza was booked into the jail — a note was entered in her file recording that she was on medication for chronic pain in her legs and back due to a car accident.

Still, she didn't get help.

Oropeza knew what would happen next: The pain in her legs would come back, her stomach would reject anything in it, her muscles would seize up, and her lungs would tighten.

"If I don't take my medication, then I get a withdrawal right away," she says.

She had no power to stop it from coming. It did.

In the first holding cell, waiting to be fingerprinted, Oropeza asked for a bag to throw up in. A guard handed her one.

She sat on the concrete floor in the corner of the cell, vomiting into the bag until it was full, unable to move as the pain in her legs crept back and the painkillers wore off.

When she asked for a second bag, a guard told her to use the trash can on the other side of the cell. But she couldn't get up to walk over to it.

"Just don't throw up on the floor," he told her.

She was struggling to breathe and still throwing up when another woman in the cell began to kick the door to get the guard's attention. Oropeza, afraid of angering the guard, begged her not to.

"No," the woman said. "You need help. You need help now."

When the guard finally came, he walked Oropeza down a long hall and told another guard on duty there to "take her down to medical," Oropeza remembers.

Standing at the end of the hall with the new guard, Oropeza felt increasingly dizzy. She grabbed a nearby chair because she felt like she was going to faint.

"Don't touch that chair," the guard yelled.

"You don't need nothing to hold on to. You just stand there," Oropeza remembers him saying.

She asked him whether she could hold onto the wall. He told her no.

"All you're doing is putting on a show to get out of here. We get it all the time," he said.

When he took her out of the hallway, it was to yet another cell — this one right outside the medical unit, where she could see the nurses through a window.

Oropeza begged the nurses for help, miming that she couldn't breathe. She says Arpaio's guard just laughed at her. The nurses didn't come.

By about 1:30 p.m., after at least three hours of vomiting and dry heaving in a cement jail cell, Arpaio's guards finally turned her over to Correctional Health Services, the medical unit of the jail, according to records.

She was handcuffed to a gurney. When she complained of being cold, "they threw paper over me," she says.

At a few minutes before 7 p.m. on June 2, CHS staff called an ambulance to come for Bertha Oropeza. It arrived at 7:30 p.m., according to records, a full six hours after she had entered the medical unit.

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Lauren Gilger
Contact: Lauren Gilger