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Maricopa County seeks end to judge's oversight of jails

PHOENIX -- Maricopa County officials in metro Phoenix are asking a judge to end his oversight over medical and mental health care services for inmates who are awaiting trial in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jails.

The oversight by U.S. District Judge Neil Wake arises from a 36-year-old lawsuit over jail conditions. The judge is examining the issue in an evidentiary hearing that began last week and is expected to wrap up Thursday.

Five years ago, Wake concluded 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 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.

The county is seeking an end to Wake's supervision, saying the county has made strides in making the changes required by the judge, such as expanding screenings for medical issues, suicidal risks and other issues for people who are entering jail. The county also said there are no current systemic constitutional violations within the jails.

Lawyers who pushed the lawsuit said medical and mental health care for inmates is still plagued by deficiencies.

They said the care for inmates is inadequate and exposes them to unreasonable risk of harm. They said the jails routinely fail to send patients to a higher level of care when needed, have inadequate suicide prevention and defective medication management practices. "It's a dangerous system for people who are mentally ill," said Gabriel Eber, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who urged Wake to continue his supervision of the jails.

Arpaio aide Jack MacIntyre said there are no systematic constitutional problems remaining within the jails and that the county's jail system can address any problems that pop up here and there.

"We are operating a constitutionally fair detention system," MacIntyre said.

Arpaio became a national political fixture, in part, through his jail policies, such as jailing inmates in tents and dressing them in pink underwear. The sheriff's jail conditions, however, have been a regular source of criticism of Arpaio and have resulted in lawsuits, including wrongful death claims. Since Arpaio took office in 1993, the county has paid about $25 million in settlements and judgments over treatment in county jails.

County spokeswoman Cari Gerchick declined to comment on the county's request to end the judge's oversight.

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