Jailers Show a Paraplegic Who's Boss

Richard Post spent only a few hours in Madison Street Jail, but in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's penal colony, no stay is too short to avoid abuse.

Especially for inmates like Post, who make demands on their captors. For those kinds of troublemakers, Arpaio's jailers reserve a special form of treatment.

Call it the Madison Street Special: Jailers stuff unruly inmates into a medieval-looking restraint chair and--federal investigators have found--heap abuse on their immobilized wards.

Injuries and even a death have resulted from the use of the restraint chair, but Arpaio continues to defend its use for locking down trouble inmates.

Inmates such as Richard Post.
After all, Post, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic, had pounded on his cell door demanding that a jail nurse give him a catheter so he could urinate.

For Arpaio's jailers, it was an easy call: Post needed "chairing."
So they crammed him into the device and left him in it for six hours.
They ignored his pleas that such treatment of a paraplegic would cause serious injuries. In fact, the lower, paralyzed portions of his body were severely damaged, and Post would spend four months in bed, convalescing.

But Post's protestations fell on deaf ears. Jailers intended to teach Post a lesson he would never forget. So they strapped him down roughly into the metal contraption, and tightened its leather straps with all their might.

And broke Post's neck.
And now, almost a year after his stay in Joe Arpaio's jail, Post has lost much of the use of his arms, and faces surgery to remove a vertebra from his neck.

It's a tough penalty meted out by a tough sheriff, but then that's the avowed mission of a lawman who brags that his jails are meant to be so miserable no inmate will ever break the law again.

And that includes evildoers such as Richard Post, who has spent a total of one night in jail in his life.

His crime: possessing a gram of marijuana and calling someone an Englishman.

Nearly a year ago, the federal government told Joe Arpaio that his jails were houses of torture. Since then, several inmates have perished and others have been injured in precisely the manner U.S. Department of Justice investigators decried.

Some of the deaths and beatings have received the attention of the Valley's press. Others have not.

Buried in a Maricopa County file thousands of pages thick, claims submitted by attorneys on behalf of inmates abused and killed reveal dozens of allegations of torture and neglect which could cost the county tens of millions of dollars.

Last June--three months after federal investigators had warned Arpaio that jailers were using the restraint chair to abuse inmates--inmate Scott Norberg died while jailers attempted to stuff him into the device.

Norberg's family has filed a $4.5 million notice of claim as a result of the death.

Less well-known, however, is the beating Jane Olson says she received that very day--and only feet away from the spot where Norberg died. She, too, was strapped into a restraint chair and received injuries. She has filed a $5 million claim.

Only two days later, jailers moved inmate Michael Sanderson to a cell by himself, weeks after making the diagnosis that he was acutely suicidal. Sanderson hanged himself almost immediately. That death has prompted the inmate's family to file a $750,000 notice of claim. (Federal investigators had also warned the county about inadequate and inept handling of mentally disturbed inmates.)

Many other cases have been filed against Arpaio and his jail (see accompanying story), including one by Richard Post. Most involve the kind of violence and neglect federal investigators had specifically warned county officials occurred in Arpaio's jails.

The sheriff's reaction to the Justice Department's investigative report--which he received last March but didn't make public until July--was simply to deny the premise. He dismissed it as a fabrication of vengeful inmates, and complained that the feds had not provided him with names and dates to go along with the charges.

But Arpaio is well-aware of the names and dates of incidents which have resulted in claims against his office.

His tough talk works well with a public that may not draw a distinction between prison--where convicted criminals serve out their sentences--and Arpaio's jail, where more than 60 percent of inmates await trial under an assumption of innocence.

In Madison Street Jail, where seven of the 19 jail deaths on Arpaio's watch have occurred, almost all inmates await trial. (Most of the others occurred at the Maricopa County Medical Center, where sick and injured inmates are held.)

Some, whose only crime is not having the cash for bail, are subjected to Arpaio's notions of punishment for what may be months before their day in court.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega