Monday, October 07, 2002

Beating Up Those Who Can't Fight Back

This week's column was triggered by an Arizona Court of Appeals decision, Flanders v. Maricopa County, No. 1 CA-CV 01-0239 (Ariz. App. Sep. 26, 2002). You also might want to read the full rant by Prof. Mark Kleiman of UCLA regarding cutting prison literacy programs for the math on such efforts, if nothing else.

I got a dreadful headline; jail anarchy is the kind of thing that would gladden conservatives. The actual point of my column is that too much of politics today depends on beating up people who can't fight back. Prisoners, illegal aliens, juvenile predators, it's all their fault--what a winning philosophy! But you have to take what you can get with The Tribune.

East Valley Tribune, October 6, 2002

The signs say “Support Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Jails. Vote for Proposition 411.” Maybe, as urged by Supervisor Fulton Brock, we should extend the county’s jail tax. But based on a new Arizona Court of Appeals opinion, don’t vote for Prop. 411 to support Arpaio’s jails -- unless you enjoy “deliberate indifference” to human life, violating the constitution, and making prisoners suffer just for the political upside.

The appeals court upheld a $948,000 jury verdict against Maricopa County and Arpaio in the brutal beating of Jeremy Flanders in the Tent City Jail. In 1996, while serving a one-year sentence for burglary, other inmates brutally attacked a sleeping Flanders during a guard shift change. Witnesses saw Flanders, then 20, beaten with a metal rebar tent spike. No guards responded, no alarm sounded.

Bloodied, unconscious, and beaten nearly unrecognizable, another inmate carried Flanders to the guards, nearly 100 yards away, for assistance. Flanders remained in a coma for several days; he lost motor functions and suffered permanent brain damage.

The U.S. Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.” Flanders sued Maricopa County, the Sheriff’s Office, and Arpaio for violating his Eighth Amendment rights, and for gross negligence.

The trial revealed some seamy details of Tent City lost in the haze of bologna sandwiches, pink underwear, and chain gangs: Too few guards too far away to supervise and control inmates; prisoners roaming the grounds freely; pervasive weapons, like those tent stakes; frequent inmate fights; and plenty of easily-obtained contraband.

Getting contraband into Tent City was absurdly easy. Prisoners on work release brought back some, but more simply was thrown inside. Outsiders would approach the fences and just toss stuff to inmates in the yard. As guards rarely patrolled outside, the “fence toss” was a steady pipeline into the jail.

At trial, a correctional expert described preposterously simple, but ignored, ways to reduce weapons and contraband and increase security: cementing tent stakes, moving the fences, and conducting shift changes in the yard, not the enclosed building.

The court said the evidence of unsafe conditions “was essentially undisputed, even by jail authorities.” The court held that “the history of violence, the abundance of weaponry, the lack of supervision, and the absence of necessary security measures supports the jury’s finding of deliberate indifference to inmate safety” by Arpaio.

Arpaio’s defense was “a claimed lack of knowledge,” that America’s Most Media-Hungry Sheriff just didn’t know what occurred in Tent City and therefore couldn’t be responsible. He even testified to ignorance of an inmate’s threat to beat Arpaio with a tent stake -- a threat, unfortunately, described in his book, America’s Toughest Sheriff. (He only wrote the book; he never said he read it.)

Arpaio’s indifference to law and life has a parallel with the Bush administration’s move to cut prison literacy funding -- a move which UCLA professor Mark Kleiman compares to trying to reduce health care costs by cutting vaccinations. It’s guaranteed to increase both costs and crime.

Literacy correlates with employment and illiteracy correlates with recidivism. Given prison costs, a literacy program with only 1 percent effectiveness saves money -- with the benefits of lower crime to potential victims and the community an additional bonus.

But, as Kleiman notes, shortsighted hatred of criminals instead will give us policies that increase crime.

The only reason to cut prison literacy programs, or to have a Tent City, is for the votes to be had in saying any prisoner is bad, deserves what he gets, and we won’t spend any money on bad people, even if it eventually costs us more million-dollar verdicts and more crime.

Who cares if it’s right, it’s so popular to beat up somebody who can’t fight back -- just like what Joe Arpaio let happen to Jeremy Flanders.

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