U.S. District Judge Neil Wake’s ruling stems from a civil rights lawsuit filed by three inmates in 1977, when Jerry Hill was sheriff. In 1995, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and the inmates’ attorneys entered into an agreement that would mandate improvements in jail conditions.
But Wake found in 2008 that the jails were still below minimum standards. Since then, Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s office said they have tried to meet the court’s standards by reducing crowds in holding cells, giving inmates in the Durango Jail cleaning supplies and even hiring a dietitian to assess the jail menu.
Arpaio and his lawyers said the county jails are efficiently run and conditions inside the facilities are humane along with the overall treatment of inmates. Arpaio’s office also said that 88 percent of the original 164 alleged violations were resolved by 2008.
“We run an excellent jail system, even though I may have some get-tough policies running those jails,” Arpaio said.
County supervisor Max Wilson said the ruling shows positive results can come when the sheriff and county officials cooperate. Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, a frequent critic of Arpaio, said the ruling “is an important first step. We have much further to go.”
Court-appointed experts who visited the jails in April noted an increase in staffing and lower mortality rates. But they expressed concerns about inmates’ access to medical care, and their report highlighted the need to train workers in dealing with mentally ill inmates.
Gabe Eber, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who represents inmates, said officials must comply with the medical and mental-health provisions of the judgment.
“As of now, neither the sheriff nor the county are in compliance with those,” Eber told The Arizona Republic. “The court has treated them both as co-defendants. There are clearly areas the sheriff needs to be involved in … There are going to be areas of access to care where the sheriff needs to cooperate with (Correctional Health Services) and make changes.”
Arpaio also has faced other criticism surrounding the county jails during his tenure, as well as a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit that accuses his department of racially profiling Latinos during its trademark immigration patrols. The sheriff has long denied those allegations.