Lawyers for Inmates in County Jail Conditions Lawsuit Seek $1.4 Million in Fees; Jail Problems Improving, Says Lawyer

Lawyers in a major lawsuit that sought better conditions for Maricopa County Jail inmates want the county to reimburse their $1.4 million in fees since a judge ruled in their favor.

In October, U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake ordered the county to allow pretrial inmates to take their prescribed medications, to give them better food and generally comply with other basic standards. The ruling essentially meant pre-trial inmates won the lawsuit, which had been in the court system for about 30 years. Sheriff Joe Arpaio (below) inherited the lawsuit in 1992 after first being elected.

Debra Hill, one of the attorneys for the lawsuit, says the lawyers who worked for the inmates should be paid about $1.4 million for their work in the last four years. The fee is based on a statutory limit of $169 an hour for prison reform work, she says. Wake is scheduled to hear motions on April 2 concerning the fees.

The sheriff's office indicated it wants to appeal Wake's ruling, but recently asked the 9th Circuit Court for a six-month extension on the required time to file an appeal. Hill says that means the county might not appeal the ruling, after all. (The impact of a potential conflict between county lawyers may benefit Hill's side). 

In the meantime, Hill says, the sheriff's office produced a quarterly report last week that shows conditions are improving in the county's jail system.


"They are continuing to improve the food," Hills says. "I don't think it complies yet, but they're working on it."

The jail system has been limiting the number of inmates in holding and intake cells, instead of just cramming folks in. New, pretrial inmates held more than 24 hours have been getting mattresses to sleep on, she says.

"They're putting people in empty cells on the second floor of the 4th Avenue Jail," Hill says.

On the inmate health side, two doctors -- one's a mental health expert -- are due to arrive in Phoenix next week for a tour of the jails. They'll prepare a report on what needs to be changed to meet Wake's requirements, Hill says.

Inmates who haven't had a trial are innocent until proven guilty -- so why should they be denied prescription drugs, offered garbage as vittles and be forced to sleep on concrete (and sometimes next to overflowing toilets)?

Thanks to Hill and lawyers with the ACLU, pretrial inmates in Maricopa County won't face such conditions in the future.

But now the bill's due. 

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.