PHOENIX -- Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is known for his unconventional jail policies, which have raised complaints from inmates in the past.
“If they don’t like it, I would highly recommend not coming to jail,” said Sheriff Arpaio.
Now it is not the inmates complaining, but attorney Jason Gronski of the Maricopa County Public Defender’s office.
“We’ve come to find out clients are not eating, are sleep deprived, and aren’t able to assist us at trial, assist council. That’s become a major problem,” said Gronski.
Sheriff Arpaio confirmed that on trial days, inmates in Maricopa County jails are awoken between 3 and 4 in the morning for trials that begin at 10:30 AM. They are given a breakfast when they wake up, then nothing until 6 in the evening when dinner is served at the jail.
Gronski argues that skipping lunch and waking early on trial days is interfering with the judicial process.
“My clients are not getting fair trials,” he said. “What they are doing is giving the state a tactical advantage during trial.”
After one client complained of hunger during a trial, Gronski drafted a motion asking the judge to force the Sheriff to provide lunch.
“My client was basically spaced out. He didn’t understand what was going on. He was very lost. He couldn’t focus,” Gronski said.
The judge agreed that the client needed food, but that he had no power to force the Sheriff to provide it.
“The judge made a ruling, granted our motion for lunch and was informed by the Sheriff’s Department they would not be doing that and unfortunately the judge said there is nothing I can do,” Gronski said.
According to Gronski, legally no one other than the Sheriff or his deputies can provide food for an inmate during the trial.
“If I hand them something to eat, it’s a class 2 felony,” he said
The self-proclaimed “toughest Sheriff in America” defended both his meal and his sleep policies.
“If they didn’t get their full amount of sleep and they’re not happy, they can always catch a nap in the holding cell,” said Arpaio when asked about waking up inmates 6 to 7 hours before the start of trial.
When asked about skipping lunch, Arpaio responded, “I don’t know why they are complaining. They’re still getting 2600 calories a day.”
Arpaio contends that the meals provided to inmates meet the nutritional guidelines mandated by the state.
Phoenix psychiatrist Dr. Michael Yasinski, who has significant court room experience, said one or two days of skipping lunch or skimping on sleep might not have a big impact, but over time could be devastating.
“We use that as a form of torture,” he said. “It’s to get people feeling extremely uncomfortable, willing to say and do things they wouldn’t do normally.”
Dr. Yasinski believes that the Sheriff’s lunch and sleep policies could have a direct impact on a trial.
“Over the course of days and weeks your brain can start to be poorly nourished. The memory, the cognition, the behavior all can change pretty drastically and can contribute to someone's performance in a courtroom as a defendant in terms of how they answer questions, their logical thinking can be impaired,” he said. “Jurors can perceive some of their agitated behavior as nervous or uncomfortable.”
Gronski said he plans to continue fighting the policies in Arizona’s court system.
“Under the laws and the constitution, you can’t go ahead and punish a person while they’re in custody and our argument is that this is basically what Sheriff Joe is doing,” Gronski said.