Inmates' Rights Lawsuit Languishes

The lawyer behind the arrests of New Times executives Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin is central in a seminal lawsuit alleging that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office violates the constitutional rights of inmates in its charge.

Hundreds of inmates involved in a class-action suit against the Sheriff's Office have waited 30 years for their day in court. Their jail-conditions suit, called Hart vs. Hill (Damian Hart was an inmate and Jerry Hill was sheriff), was filed in federal court long before Arpaio's tenure. But after 14 years of Arpaio's infamous jails, the complaints leveled in the matter are more relevant than ever.

Long before Dennis Wilenchick ordered the arrests in the New Times case, he was hired to bury Hart vs. Hill. Wilenchik — who came into the case in 2005 when he was hired to represent the Sheriff in an array of matters by County Attorney Andrew Thomas — set out to do that by filing an avalanche of paperwork that an 82-year-old federal judge must plow through.

At issue in the case are the rights of pretrial detainees — prisoners awaiting trial for crimes they may or may not have committed. Such detainees now make up about 70 percent of the population of Joe Arpaio's lockups, according to the 2007 Performance Report for the county jails.

Pretrial detainees were subjected to harsh conditions in Maricopa County jails before Arpaio. But during his tenure, evidence of inhumane treatment has mounted. Four inmates who died in county jails in the Arpaio era were detainees (out of 11 preventable deaths documented in various lawsuits).

In 1995, Arpaio agreed to a consent decree in Hart vs. Hill. He promised to remedy a long list of concerns mentioned in the lawsuit. In what has become a refrain about county jails here, inmates complained in 1977 of poor health care, inhumane living conditions and physical abuse by detention officers, among other cruelties.

In 2001 — without implementing many, if any, of the changes — Arpaio's office filed a motion to terminate the consent decree.

By 2004, the sheriff still hadn't complied with the consent agreement when his office got its day in court. In January of that year, the county argued before U.S. District Judge Earl Carroll for dismissal of the decree.

After that, motions were filed on behalf of the inmates against dismissing the agreement, saying Arpaio's jails continue to violate the civil rights of inmates. In 2004 alone, more than 200 inmates declared that their civil rights were violated, according to court documents.

In January, it will be four years since the county argued in court to dismiss the consent decree, and no end is in sight for Hart vs. Hill. Judge Carroll hasn't even called attorney Debra Hill, who started representing the inmates in 2006, to present arguments. Hill, of the law firm Osborn Maledon, speculates that the main reason is the mounds of paperwork that Wilenchik has filed in the case.

But whatever is holding things up, the delay is working to Arpaio's advantage. After the county argued for the dismissal, the consent agreement was frozen — which means that the sheriff doesn't have to do what he promised to do pending outcome of the matter.

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John Dickerson
Contact: John Dickerson