How Many Inmates Have Died in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Jails? Who Knows, But it's a Big Number.

Human Rights

Last week, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio concluded a contempt of court hearing that revealed what we’ve always known about the old coot: his office engages in racial profiling, he thinks he’s above the law enough to ignore court orders, and he’ll use the power of his office, and the taxpayer’s coin, to investigate and harass his enemies—in this case a judge and his wife!

Lest anyone think we’ve seen the worst of Arpaio’s illegal and immoral acts, Phoenix New Times editor Michael Lacey just put that notion to rest. Lacey has a history with Sheriff Arpaio of course. A decade or so ago, New Times was about the only local media outlet that would kick shit at the sheriff. It was the height of Arpaio’s powerful police state, with County Attorney Andrew Thomas providing legal cover, a submissive MSM enabling the misconduct, and Senate President Russell Pearce, author of SB1070, doing what he could to pass legislation that served Arpaio’s racist aspirations.

So, in 2007, after New Times had dumped on the sheriff for years, Arpaio, at the zenith of his political influence and popular approval, arrested Lacey and fellow journalist Jim Larkin, supposedly for revealing grand jury secrets—a made-up excuse because the grand jury had never been convened. Late in the evening of October 18, 2007, the sheriff’s deputies showed up at the journalists’ homes and took them into custody.

Larkin was taken to a lockup in the East Valley. Lacey was driven to the Fourth Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix and placed in a holding cell with the night’s catch of perpetrators ...

Then, in an eerie “Alice’s Restaurant” moment, one of the other men in the holding cell spoke to him.

“What are you in for, White boy?” the man asked.

Lacey answered.


In some ways, the arrest of Lacey and Larkin was a tipping point, because members of the Fourth Estate, “white boys” at that, had been arrested by Arpaio, not just another Latino yard worker. The press to an extent protected its own, and soon the media, some elected officials, and certainly the public turned on the sheriff, especially after a Lacey-Larkin story revealed that Arpaio had sought the online identities and browsing habits of visitors to New Times’ website. Before long County Attorney Andrew Thomas was disbarred, Sen. Pearce was recalled, and Joe Arpaio barelywon his 2012 race. Meanwhile, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin sued the sheriff’s office for false arrest and settled for $3.7 million.

Lacey’s recent story, “Prisoners Hang Themselves in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Jails at a Rate That Dwarfs Other County Lockups,” is explosive, and not just because he uncovered an alarming suicide rate in Maricopa County jails. Lacey also probes, without much help from county administrators, the number of jail deaths in general. He stumbles into a sick universe of crime and denial, but nothing we should be surprised about given what we know about Sheriff Arpaio.

The number of suicides is off the charts, which is sadly understandable when you consider the proven mistreatment of inmates and the conditions in places like Tent City. The food is atrocious, Tent City can reach 145 degrees in the summer, and one federal judge ruled twice that the medical care and other conditions are unconstitutional. So, while most big county lockups have suicide rates ranging from 6 to 14 percent, the percentage of deaths in Arpaio’s jails from suicide is 24 percent. And, as Lacey says, it’s probably higher, except nobody really knows.

From 1996 to 2015, the suicide rate among jail deaths in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's lockups was an astounding 24 percent, with 39 of the 157 hanging themselves.

Furthermore, of the 157 deaths listed on the sheriff's watch on the M.E.'s chart, 34 simply are tagged as having been found dead with no explanation as to cause of death. More mysteriously, another 39 died in the county hospital without explanation. That's 73 deaths — nearly half of all deaths — that county authorities list as "who knows?"

It gets worse. Arpaio’s guards kill inmates or just let them die at a chilling rate. Last year Felix Torrezwas picked up for riding his bike to work on the wrong side of the street, taken to jail, and died from a bleeding ulcer while jailers ignored his cries. Or in 2011 Gulf War veteran Marty Atencio was manhandled and Tased by eight guards, then left to die (warning: graphic video). County residents have shelled out more than $140 million to pay for these criminal fuck-ups—one of the earliest and largest being the $8.25 million that Scott Norberg’s family received after the victim died while being restrained. 

Lacey’s account describes other inmates who were hauled into one of Joe’s jails, then died for lack of attention—like a diabetes shot.  

For the next 60 hours, Deborah Braillard suffered the agonies of hell as she went into a diabetic coma. She died because jailers did not administer insulin.

​What’s even more appallingly misleading is that in some cases, the records state that the inmate died at the hospital, not in Arpaio’s corrupt hell hole, because the victim was transported to the hospital after dying in jail. So, we don’t really know how many died in the sheriff’s custody, but it’s a big, unacceptable number.

Sure, this happens elsewhere, but it happens in Arpaio’s jails a lot. That’s probably the reason, according to Lacey, that nobody has tracked all the deaths. It’s the same reason the NRA blocks research on guns. The answer would be uncomfortable.

How many body bags?

Sheriff Joe Arpaio has refused to answer. His spokesman, Lieutenant Brandon James, said doing the math would take a few weeks. It's been six months.

Searching other databases (the Office of the County Medical Examiner's and the Office of Risk Management's, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice's) revealed that close to 160 people have died in Arpaio's jails.

But that is an estimate, because the truth is that no outside authority keeps track of how many people die from brutality, neglect, disease, bad health, or old age in Arpaio's jails.

Like the Torrez case, some deaths, which the county does not feel important enough to track or tell the truth about, occurred while the inmate was awaiting trial—not convicted of anything. Meanwhile, a convicted sheriff walks among us, preparing for his 2016 campaign.

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