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Arpaio’s Legacy Continues in Mistreatment of Mentally Ill Inmates at MCSO Jails

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Carmen Cornejo
Written by Carmen Cornejo

There is no doubt that Arizona is a bad place to be a prisoner. Contrary to what many conservatives think, prisoners’ mistreatment is harmful to the state and to our communities, morally and economically.

The news feed this week was full of intense testimonies from health and legal professionals denouncing the sad shape of prisoners’ health services, especially for the mentally ill at jails.

After infamous Joe Arpaio was voted out of office in November 2016, we all hoped that profound measures were about to be taken to clean up the culture of cruelty that the former sheriff not only created but boasted about in the media: Tent city, bad food, pink underwear, humiliations, the lack of adequate medical and mental services, and deaths at the jails.

The conditions under Arpaio were bad enough to bring inmates to commit or attempt suicide at alarming rates, as was reported by our co-founder Michael Lacey.

Also, inmates, especially those who suffered from mental illness, died at the hands of guards who broke their necks, suffocated them and mortally injured them instead of stabilizing or helping them.

In 2008, Arpaio’s MCSO was found in violation of the Constitution for depriving prisoners of adequate medical screenings and care, feeding them unhealthy food, and housing them in unsanitary conditions, a federal judge ruled.

It is an outrage that this culture of cruelty has survived Arpaio’s tenure and is alive and well under current Sheriff Paul Penzone.

This week, Eric Balaban, senior staff counsel with the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and lead counsel for the Maricopa County Jail detainees in Graves v. Penzone, wrote an op-ed for the Arizona Capitol Times denouncing the Dickensian conditions of mental inmates in solitary confinement, especially at the Special Management Unit (SMU). The sanitary environment is inhumane, the time allotted for human contact and communication is minimal, and their medical and psychological needs are not met. People become worse mentally and physically while imprisoned.

The conditions are so bad it is hard to write about, but they include putrid food and soiled inmates. Please read the op-ed piece here.

Balaban explains that the conditions at the Maricopa County SMU is the “single worst unit I have ever seen… in my 23 years of visiting prisons and jails nationwide.”

The entire purpose of the SMU is to cut off inmates from human contact, and it is a dump hole for people with acute mental illness. “The only time prisoners are allowed to see sunlight and get fresh air is for one hour on weekdays inside a recreation cage. There, they can walk in circles alone,” writes Balaban.

“During the tenure of Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, prisoners with serious mental illnesses were put in solitary confinement for cutting themselves and spreading blood on their cell walls, and for trivial offenses, such as removing American flag stickers the sheriff ordered be placed in every cell,” Balaban explains.

“Once in solitary, prisoners with severe mental illnesses begin a cruel cycle,” he continues. “The relentless isolation they endure in the SMU causes them to deteriorate, making them more unstable. They become more disassociated from reality. They refuse to eat and refuse medications and treatment. As a result, they are more prone to making outbursts or threatening staff, which the jail then uses to justify keeping them in the SMU.”

This is not only morally wrong but costly to taxpayers. If and when the inmates are released from the prisons, they come out in worse mental and physical shape, and the community will pay for their medical services or their recidivism.

Other states have taken action again these practices, basing their decision on evidence and data. Even though there is evidence that treating prisoners with mental issues humanely and barring long-term solitary confinement reduces violent and disciplinary incidents, Maricopa County refuses to implement improvements.

The situation has been decades in the making. In 2008, U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake found MCSO’s health care system unconstitutional. He noted the detrimental effects of extended lockdown and solitary confinement on inmates with serious mental illnesses.

Even though the noxious presence of bad agents inside the jails has been documented by a court-appointed psychiatrist-monitor, to this day they are still working in the unit.

“The time has long passed for this relic of Sheriff Arpaio’s regime to be closed down,” wrote Balaban.

Penzone has shown timid efforts to reform the jails. He is still shy of closing the SMU unit altogether and reforming the way food, health and mental issues are addressed inside MCSO jails.

He needs to act immediately and decisively, and stop perpetuating Arpaio’s legacy.