A lawsuit filed in Arizona yesterday will once again put Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio on the defensive for how inmates are treated in his county's jails.
Ernest "Marty" Atencio died in December 2011 from complications of cardiac arrest after what the lawsuit describes as a "jailer's riot." Now his family is suing the county, in a suit that cites a "culture of cruelty and punishment" fostered by Arpaio in county jails.
A group of jailers and police officers swarmed Atencio as he resisted efforts to book him at the Fourth Avenue jail in Phoenix. The 44-year-old Army veteran, who had a criminal record, including a felony for an aggravated DUI charge, had been arrested for allegedly kicking at the door of an apartment complex and aggressively confronting a woman.
But according to the $20-million lawsuit, jail staff knew Atencio had mental health problems, and should have sent him for medical treatment instead of admitting him to the jail.
Surveillance video shows officers from the Phoenix Police Department and jailers struggling with Atencio and eventually wrestling him to the ground. During the scuffle, Atencio was shocked in the chest with a Taser, which the lawsuit said was wielded by a sergeant from the sheriff's office. Several minutes later, jail staff picked up his motionless body and placed Atencio in a "safe cell" to calm down, according to a statement by the sheriff's deputy chief.
An autopsy found the cause of death undetermined -- meaning it could not be classified as either natural, accidental, homicide or suicide -- but cited a setting of "acute psychosis, law enforcement subdual and multiple medical problems" in the lead up to his cardiac arrest.
According to the lawsuit, the force used by jailers and police directly led to Atencio's death. The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office did not respond to a request for comment on the case.
The lawsuit is the latest in a string of multi-million dollar settlements for deaths in Maricopa jails. During Arpaio's 20-year tenure as sheriff, the county has spent more than $24 million in settlements and litigation related to inmate claims, according to Cari Gerchick, a county spokesperson. That figure does not include costs covered by insurance.
To put the settlement costs into perspective, the county's budget for the 2013 fiscal year stands at $2.3 billion.
Civil rights watchdogs like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) say conditions in Maricopa jails have improved overall in recent years, but that inmates are still vulnerable in some ways. "Things have gotten better but there are still significant deficiencies in medical and mental healthcare," said Eric Balaban, an attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project.
Over the past two decades, Arpaio has drawn national attention to his county's jail system with his stripped-down approach to management, which he often frames as saving taxpayer dollars. The majority of those in custody have not been convicted of a crime -- more than 70 percent of the daily inmate population are pretrial detainees.
Inmate conditions are spartan at best. Inmates are housed in tents, fed the cheapest meals of any jail in the country and forced to wear pink underwear, less likely to be taken home when inmates are discharged, according to the sheriff's office. "It costs more to feed the dogs than it does the inmates," Arpaio told The New Yorker in 2009.
But millions spent in settlements suggest that the sheriff's no-frills approach to jail might not be working.
Just two weeks ago, the county agreed to a $3.25 million settlement in the case of Deborah Braillard, a Maricopa detainee who died in 2005 after she was denied insulin and medical care for three days, ABC15 reported. If approved by the county board of supervisors, the settlement and litigation costs will push Maricopa close to the $30 million mark in legal expenses and settlements for inmate claims during Arpaio's tenure.
The Braillard case also raised serious questions about corruption in the sheriff's office.
According to ABC15, the county suddenly decided to settle after years of legal back-and-forth and three weeks of trial testimony. At the time of the settlement, the jury was about to hear from the judge about how key evidence was lost, deleted or "destroyed" by the sheriff's office in an attempt to cover up Braillard's death, ABC15 reported.
Due to a court-issued gag order, county officials would not comment on the case.
Both the Braillard and Atencio cases are being handled by Michael Manning, a Phoenix attorney who has won six of seven jail death cases against Maricopa. During his career, Manning has litigated cases against organized crime, an experience he compared to dealing with the sheriff's office.
"What I've seen litigating all these years against the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is far more alarming than litigating against the mob," Manning said. "In every one of our cases, we've caught them destroying evidence or tampering with witnesses."
The sheriff's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Much of the cost of these settlements are covered by county insurance, but the county's deductible has risen substantially during the Arpaio era, from $1 million to $5 million, according to county spokesperson Cari Gerchick. The reasons for the increase are unrelated to the lawsuits against the sheriff's office, she said. But the higher deductible means a bigger financial blow to the county when it has to pay out.
The county factors settlements for jail deaths into the cost of doing business, according to Dr. Todd Wilcox, a former medical director for Correctional Health Services (CHS), which provides medical care for the jails.
"Do you get the impression that CHS and county management would rather just pay the verdicts and the settlements rather than just invest the money in projects and programs that would help?" a lawyer for the plaintiff asked Wilcox during the Braillard trial.
"That's the sense I came to believe after being there for the four years that I was there," Wilcox said.
As with past cases against the sheriff's office, the Atencio lawsuit goes beyond assigning individual blame to jail employees for his death, also calling into question the professional atmosphere established in the jails by the sheriff.
"In addition to having a history of deliberate indifference to the unconstitutional and inadequate medical care in the County's jails, the County has turned a blind eye towards the culture of cruelty and punishment Sheriff Arpaio has created in the County's jails," the lawsuit alleges.
In Arpaio's 2008 autobiography, he says that "jails are intended to be punishment" and a similar statement is quoted in the Atencio lawsuit.
Arpaio spoke differently in a statement to ABC/Univision: "Jails are not meant to be punishment," he wrote. "The vast majority of our population is pre-trial. Punishment is post-conviction only."
Sheriff Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office are also defendants in two large-scale lawsuits, one by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), focusing on racial profiling, and one by the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, which covers a broad range of issues, including profiling and discriminatory treatment of jail inmates with limited English proficiency.
While high-profile, neither of those lawsuits allege criminal wrongdoing in the sheriff's office. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had been involved in a four-year criminal inquiry into whether Arpaio had abused his power as sheriff, but dropped the investigation in late August.
Arpaio told the Arizona Republic that he "never had any doubt" about the outcome of the inquiry, saying, "If I did something wrong, there would be indictments floating all over the place."
For more posts in the Arpaio Watch series, click here.