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County accused of letting mentally ill inmates languish

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Lawyers pressing a decades-old lawsuit over conditions in metro Phoenix’s jail system say inmates with serious mental illnesses are suffering needlessly because authorities aren’t bringing them to outside treatment centers, often leaving them to languish in lockdown cells where they suffer from extreme isolation.

The attorneys said in a court filing Friday that Maricopa County officials haven’t complied with a federal judge’s requirement that mentally ill inmates be brought to outside hospitals if they can’t be adequately treated in jail. It’s unclear what sort of consequences the county would face if the judge finds it didn’t comply with the requirement.

The filing says psychologically ill inmates are left in mental health units within the jail system or in lockdown cells where they experience hallucinations, smear blood and feces on themselves and cell walls, and pose a danger to themselves and others. In one instance, an inmate described as being extremely psychotic during her incarceration had pulled out her hair until she had a bald spot and continued to suffer during her stay in jail.

An expert witness report submitted with the filing said the woman refused anti-psychotic medications on several occasions and wouldn’t engage with mental health staff. The report says the staff should have taken a more aggressive approach to her treatment.

“We are asking for a more specific, more defined remedy, because the general remedy hasn’t proved effective,” said Eric Balaban, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who represents the inmates.

Sheriff’s Deputy Joaquin Enriquez declined to comment Saturday except to say that the county, not the sheriff’s office, oversees health services for inmates. Michele Iafrate, an attorney representing Arpaio and county supervisors who are parties in the lawsuit, did not immediately return messages seeking comment. Maricopa County spokesman Fields Moseley said the county was aware of the filings but that it could not comment during an ongoing case.

The lawsuit was filed in 1977 amid allegations that the civil rights of inmates had been violated. It lingered for decades, and a judge concluded in 2008 that the county provided inadequate medical and mental health care, unsanitary conditions and unhealthy food inside the jails.

The judge’s supervision of the sheriff’s office effectively ended in May 2012 when U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake ruled that deficiencies in food and sanitary conditions at the jails had been corrected sufficiently. But the judge continued his oversight of the jails’ medical and mental health operations, which are run by the county, not Arpaio’s office.

Balaban said the county and Arpaio’s office are to blame for not bringing mentally ill inmates to outside treatment centers if they can’t be adequately tended to while in jail.

Arpaio has won support from voters who approve of his steps to toughen jail conditions, such as housing inmates in canvas tents during Phoenix’s triple-digit summer heat and making them wear pink underwear. 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