International group urges immediate stop to Arpaio jail practices
By Tony Ortega Phoenix New Times
Published: September 18, 1997
For more than 20 years, people around the world have participated in Amnesty International’s letter-writing campaigns to protest mistreatment of prisoners by repressive foreign governments.
Following investigations into allegations of prisoner abuse, the organization calls upon its volunteers to send mountains of mail to petty dictators and sadistic jailers.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio, for example.
Since late July, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has had in its possession a report from Amnesty International which harshly condemns many of Sheriff Arpaio’s most well-known practices, New Times has learned.
The highly respected organization found that Maricopa County’s methods of incarceration violate basic worldwide standards of human rights.
Amnesty International spokesman Roger Rathman says that Arpaio and the county jails will soon become a target of the organization’s vast number of letter writers. But, according to the group’s custom, those letters will come from outside the target country. Rathman guesses that volunteers in Western Europe will be assigned the task of protesting to Arpaio.
Previously, Rathman says, Amnesty had investigated other American penal institutions, but all were the harshest of state and federal prisons. Maricopa County’s jails appear to be the first county jail the organization has heard enough complaints about to investigate.
The group mailed the findings of that investigation July 27 to Don Stapley, chairman of the Board of Supervisors. When Stapley was asked to comment about the report, his spokesman Marcus Dell’Artino replied: “Our attorneys have advised us not to go on the record about it.”
Not true, according to the County Attorney’s Office, which represents Stapley. A spokesman for the office says supervisors make up their own minds about whether to comment on such matters.
In the nine-page report, Amnesty’s Javier Zuniga, program director of the Americas Regional Program, details several jail atrocities familiar to New Times readers, including the death of Scott Norberg, the maiming of paraplegic Richard Post and the near-fatal beating of Jeremy Flanders, all in 1996.
Amnesty’s report calls for an immediate stop to several of Arpaio’s practices, including some of his most publicized:
* Calling Tent City “chronically understaffed,” Amnesty found that the facility was not an “adequate or humane alternative to housing inmates in suitable . . . jail facilities,” and recommended that the county cease its operation.
* Labeling chain gangs “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” the report said that they “serve no legitimate penological purpose,” and recommended that the county stop using them.
* Citing the examples of countries and states that have banned the use of stun guns in jails, the report “urges . . . Maricopa County authorities . . . [to] cease issuing them to all detention officers.”
* Reviewing Richard Post’s case as an example, Amnesty “urges the Maricopa County authorities to conduct an urgent review of the use of restraint chairs in the county jails with a view to restricting their use.”
* Disturbed by conditions in First Avenue Jail, where some juveniles are held in “lockdown” and kept in their cells for all but an hour per day, the report says that according to international standards, “it is not appropriate or humane to house children in solitary confinement.”
* The report specifically censures the treatment of female juveniles awaiting trial, who are being held under “deprived conditions” at First Avenue Jail, including no privacy from male guards.
* Amnesty also recommends that because of serious concerns about the use of excessive force in the county’s jails, the Sheriff’s Office should review its policies about the use of force “to ensure that they conform to international standards.”
Early in June, Amnesty’s Angela Wright and David Marshall arrived in Phoenix to research conditions in the jails. They met with Arpaio and some of his staff, toured the jails and reviewed county records. They also met with a New Times writer to discuss Arpaio’s long-standing unwillingness to turn over records or grant New Times an interview.
Arpaio turned down an interview request for this story as well.
Sheriff’s Office intergovernmental liaison John J. MacIntyre dismissed the report, saying that “there are quite a few errors and inaccuracies in it.” He says he will be writing a response to Amnesty International which he will send soon. He also pointed out that the Department of Justice declined action after investigating the Richard Post matter, and claimed that in none of the practices condemned by Amnesty International were state or constitutional laws violated.
According to Amnesty’s report, Sheriff’s Office staffers told the investigators that excessive force had never been “prevalent” at the jail and “stated that there were adequate measures to identify and sanction any officers found responsible for misconduct.
“However, during its visit Amnesty International received information on more than a dozen cases of alleged ill-treatment or use of excessive force, covering an 18 month period up to the time of Scott Norberg’s death, which raise serious concerns about practices in the jail system,” the report says.
The report goes on to describe the case of Richard Post, a paraplegic who spent a single night in jail for arguing with a bar owner and for possessing a gram of marijuana; his story was told in New Times in January (“Jailers Show a Paraplegic Who’s Boss,” January 23).
Denied a catheter so he could urinate, Post banged on his cell door and caused his commode to overflow to get the attention of jail guards. They responded by taking Post out of his wheelchair and strapping him down in a restraint chair. After an hour, guards acceded to his pleas to put a gel cushion under him. Because he was on the hard surface so long, he would be bedridden for several months with an ulcerated anus.
After putting the cushion under Post, detention officer Steve Kenner then jerked down on the chair’s straps over Post’s shoulders so hard that Post’s neck was broken.
Post, a man paralyzed below the waist yet deemed so dangerous by Arpaio’s jailers that they left him in the restraint chair for six hours, has now permanently lost much of the strength in his arms and lives with constant neck pain.
“Amnesty International finds it highly questionable that no alternative measures were available to deal with the situation, especially as Mr. Post was already incapacitated in a wheelchair. The use of restraints in this case and the manner in which they were applied . . . appears to have been unnecessarily punitive and to have amounted to cruel and inhuman treatment,” the report says.
The organization also questioned the use of a restraint chair in the death of Scott Norberg. “There appears to have been no attempt to have used alternative measures to extreme physical force, nor any examination of his mental condition despite his disturbed behaviour. The decision to place him in the restraint chair . . . appears particularly questionable.”
Last year, New Times examined the 2,000-page Sheriff’s Office investigation of Norberg’s death and found that none of the sheriff’s investigators had questioned the use of the restraint chair. The report also contained evidence that detention officers had knowingly ignored signs that they were killing Norberg, evidence that didn’t make a streamlined version of the investigation put out by Arpaio (“Sanitized for Joe’s Protection,” October 24, 1996).
Other cases of abuse cited by Amnesty International included that of Eric Johnson, whose arm was broken by detention officers in 1994; David Hoyle, “who allegedly sustained broken teeth and spine and knee injuries after being kicked and beaten and stunned repeatedly with a stun device by officers in December 1994″; and Bart Davis, who claims to be the inmate stunned in the testicles after being strapped in a restraint chair and who was mentioned in a federal investigation of the jails.
The report also acknowledges that the Sheriff’s Office has taken measures to “address the issue of force,” but added that “Amnesty International was not able to obtain a breakdown of the number of officers disciplined for excessive force.”
“Arpaio’s practices are remarkable in their lack of insight. But they’re popular because it looks like he’s getting tough,” says Dr. Daniel Georges-Abeyie, Arizona coordinator for Amnesty International. “Sheriff Joe is doing exactly the type of thing that leads to insurrection in a correctional setting.”
Last November 17, that’s just what the sheriff got. Yet, despite the Tent City riots, a federal Department of Justice investigation that found inmates were being physically abused and continued examples of inmate mistreatment and medical neglect, Arpaio has refused to make significant changes in his policies.