Simply Stunning

U.S. Department of Justice investigation into conditions at Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jails documents what inmates and prison rights advocates have alleged for years: excessive use of force that verges on torture, and severely inadequate medical care.

A federal report on jail conditions released last week reveals dozens of horrendous--and unconstitutional--instances of inmate mistreatment at Maricopa County jails. Among other things, the report concludes that Sheriff's Office detention officers used an electrical stun gun on the testicles of a prisoner while he was strapped in a restraint chair.

Although sent to county officials more than two months ago, the results of the Department of Justice investigation were not released publicly until July 3. New Times requested the investigative report in May.

In a letter dated March 25, Deval Patrick, U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights, told the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors that unconstitutional conditions do in fact exist at Arpaio's jails.

The investigation showed that a lack of county funding has caused jail overcrowding and left far too few detention officers and medical personnel at the jails. And in some cases, the report documents, sheriff's department employees are not qualified for the jobs they hold at county jails. The findings of fact include many suggestions, including staff increases and more training of sheriff's department employees on the proper use of force.

A penal expert, whose name was excised from documents released to New Times, reviewed more than 700 reports suggesting excessive force had been used routinely at Maricopa County jails.

According to Patrick, the expert found that detention officers:
* Used force on inmates, even after they were completely restrained by handcuffs or restraint chairs. "Examples include use of a stun gun to a prisoner's testicles while in a restraint chair; using stun guns on prisoners in restraint chairs; punching or kicking prisoners in cuffs," Patrick wrote.

* Used more force than situations required. "Examples include punching and kicking inmates in the head, shoving or throwing prisoners against walls to gain control, rather than using standard restraint techniques," Patrick's letter said.

* Hog-tied inmates--that is, cuffed both hands and feet behind the back and then tied the cuffs together. "Hog-tying can be life-threatening," Patrick wrote, and "is never justified."

A medical expert--also unnamed in the report released last week--found that adequate medical care is routinely denied to jail inmates. Among the findings, as reported by Patrick:

* After submitting a request for medical attention, inmates can wait days or weeks to be seen by medical staff. And gross understaffing results in poor care for those who are seen. Two jails, each with populations of about 1,000 inmates, have the service of one doctor for only two or three days each week. "The scarcity of physicians leaves nurses as the major medical decision makers, and many inmates who should be seen by doctors are not," Patrick's report said.

* Psychiatric care is inadequate. "We understand that there have been almost no psychiatric staff increases since 1985, when the prisoner population was roughly one third its present count," Patrick writes, and detention officers have ordered inmates who are not mentally ill to be confined in psychiatric units.

* Serious dental care can be delayed for more than a month. "On one or more occasions, numerous inmates broke or chipped teeth on rocks mixed in with their food. The jails, despite acknowledging that rocks were in fact contained in food, refused to fix inmates' broken teeth," Patrick writes.

* Protection against infectious diseases--including tuberculosis--is inadequate. Patrick said that "a prisoner with active TB did not have a chest x-ray until a month after incarceration, and he was not isolated until two days later. Another inmate with active TB was incarcerated twice in the general jail population . . ."

New Times revealed the Department of Justice was investigating Maricopa County jails last year. The investigation was conducted under the federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, a civil statute authorizing the review of conditions at government-operated institutional facilities. If problems discovered in such a review are not remedied within 49 days of notification of such conditions, the U.S. attorney general can sue.

So far, there has been no indication that the Department of Justice intends to sue Maricopa County. But the June death of jail detainee Scott Norberg--who was asphyxiated while being restrained by detention officers--clearly will not help county officials in negotiations with the Department of Justice on jail conditions.

Justice Department spokespeople did not respond to New Times requests for comment on the state of those negotiations or the possibility of criminal action in regard to reports of inmate abuse.

In a written response to the federal report, the county's Correctional Health Service claims that the federal investigators used a selective sample of inmates, ignored contradictory evidence, came to conclusions not supported by evidence and did not adequately detail allegations of poor medical care and excessive use of force.

Patrick, however, said the information his investigators gathered came from: the reports of medical and penal experts; interviews with prisoners, conducted by personnel from the Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney for Arizona; videotapes made at the jail; documents requested from the jail, including grievances, use-of-force reports, investigative reports, medical reports and death reports; and letters from prisoners and former prisoners.

". . . we recognize that inmate complaints cannot simply be accepted at face value," Patrick wrote to the county Board of Supervisors.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at