Prison

Maricopa County Jail Whistleblower Lawsuit Claims Punishment for Speaking up

The 4th Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix.
The 4th Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix. Josh Kelety
In Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, telling the truth meant consequences for Benjamin Fisk, a detention sergeant who claims he was punished for speaking out about poor health conditions at county jails.

After 16 years on the force, Fisk filed a lawsuit against his employer in recent weeks alleging he was disciplined for his actions last summer during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.

At the time, Covid-19 cases were exploding in the region. The lack of safety measures the sheriff's office had in its jails prompted a class-action lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union. Some incarcerated people didn't even have soap to wash their hands, ACLU attorneys said.

There was chaos abound and the county's response to sick people was "a piecemeal type thing", Fisk said in a July 2020 interview with Phoenix New Times.

“People don’t know which pods are sick, people don’t know which pods are under quarantine," Fisk said.
 
He has worked for the sheriff's office since 2005, first as a detention officer and then rising up the ranks to become a sergeant. He is also the president and founder of the Maricopa County Law Enforcement Association, the labor union which represents Maricopa County Sheriff's Office employees. The union is not recognized by the sheriff's office.

The lawsuit filed in federal court claims that after Fisk spoke up about jail conditions he was put on administrative leave for months, denied a pay raise, and was the center of several internal investigations.

Maricopa County and sheriff Paul Penzone are defendants in the lawsuit.

Fisk's attorney argues that the sheriff's office violated his right to free speech calling the law enforcement agency "retaliatory" which was meant to "chill" him from speaking out.

The detention sergeant continued to be critical of the sheriff's office actions in the public sphere such as on television.

“There are things that can be done that the sheriff’s office can do better,” he told TV station AZ Family in a discussion about Covid safety protocols, “and they're just not being done.”

At the same time, the union published a series of blog posts questioning the sheriff's office and the working conditions that its employees faced during the pandemic, particularly within the county jails.

“Those in charge of the jails all have shown that they were woefully unprepared and unresponsive,” said one blog post in late July 2020. By that time, several detention officers had died of Covid-19, according to the union.

By late August 2020, Fisk was placed on administrative leave for three months before returning to his job at the end of November.

He was the subject of five different internal investigations stemming from his work with the union and information he shared with members of the media. The sheriff's office accused him of violating its code of conduct such as abuse of his position and lack of professionalism.

Fisk's attorneys rebuff those claims. Rather the investigations "falsely accuse him of engaging in political work during work time" and that he used county resources for "non-business purposes", according to the lawsuit.

The sheriff's office created a new "non-solicitation" policy to prevent the union from distributing flyers for new recruits at work. It also barred the new union from gathering in county facilities despite that the county allows the sheriff's deputy union to do so.

When he returned to work, he was given a poor performance evaluation for the first time ever. That evaluation has since been changed since his attorney threatened legal action, according to the lawsuit.

All five internal investigations involving Fisk are ongoing more than a year later, a MCSO spokesperson confirmed to New Times.

Fisk declined to comment for the story alongside his attorney, Jacqueline Soto.

Norma Gutierrez-Deorta, a spokesperson for MCSO, also declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing pending litigation.

Becca Fealk, policy program coordinator with American Friends Service Committee Arizona, which advocates for criminal justice reform, told New Times that Fisk’s case forms part of a longstanding, “intrinsic” culture of hostility towards whistleblowers in Arizona’s jails and prisons.

“We’ve seen this time and again,” she said.
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. She previously reported for VTDigger and the Indypendent.
Contact: Katya Schwenk