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The pursuit of justice does not end at the doorway of the trial court. When necessary to advance their clients’ interests, neither Joel Robbins nor John Curtin shy away from appellate courts, whether state or federal. Between John and Joel, the attorneys of Robbins & Curtin have either defended or prosecuted dozens of appeals before the Arizona Court of Appeals, Arizona Supreme Court, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and even the United States Supreme Court. Along the way, Joel and John have sought to leave their footprints on the law, urging appellate courts to adopt decisions that reflect the American tradition of personal liberties and governmental accountability.

The Arizona Court of Appeals’ decision in Flanders v. Maricopa County, 203 Ariz. 368, 54 P.3d 837 (App. 2002), reflects this commitment. Joel’s client, Jeremy Flanders, had been sentenced to serve a one-year term of confinement in the Maricopa County Jail. He began his sentence in December of 1995, assigned to the Jail’s “Tent City.”

In jail, Mr. Flanders was a trustee, a trusted inmate with work-related assignments such as serving meals to other inmates. Other inmates pressured into joining one of the ethnic based gangs, but Mr. Flanders chose to be “by himself.”

On May 10, 1996, Mr. Flanders had completed his trustee work, eaten dinner, and returned to his tent, where he fell asleep. Shortly thereafter, during a guard shift change, several inmates entered his tent and viciously assaulted him. Specifically, five or six inmates snuck into his tent, pulled Mr. Flanders off of his bunk, struck him with various objects (including spikes for the jail’s tents), and kicked and jumped on him.

The attack caused severe and permanent injuries. He suffered a closed head injury and was in a coma for several days. He has permanent brain damage. He has a loss of motor function, loss of sensation in his left hand, and permanent loss of cognitive functioning, causing short term memory loss. He also has permanent psychological issues, including anxiety and depression.

Mr. Flanders retained Joel Robbins to represent him in a civil rights matter against Sheriff Arpaio and Maricopa County. The basis of Mr. Flanders’ claim was that Tent City was, despite Sheriff Arpaio’s rhetoric to the contrary, operated in an inhumane manner, with deliberate indifference to the safety of the inmates.

Tent City is a collection of large tents, generally designed to house 20 inmates per tent, adjacent to a permanent structure containing showers, an area for meals, and a “day room.” Tent City was designed to house up to 1,000 inmate, with 2-3 guards on duty at any given time for the area. The guards were kept inside in a building known as the “Fishbowl.” However, despite its name, the guards inside the Fishbowl could not see directly outside to the tents. A single guard was assigned to the tent area. Another guard was assigned to a tower in the corner of tent yard. However, visibility from the tower was limited, and the guard assigned to this tower could not respond quickly to events in the yard. At the time of the attack on Mr. Flanders, the single guard assigned to the yard was in the Fishbowl, preparing for shift change.

Tent City was supposed to be a minimum security facility for inmates on trustee status.   However, in his trial testimony, Sheriff Arpaio admitted that he also housed “drug dealers,” “sex offenders,” and “murderers” in Tent City as well.

The tents at Tent City are not secure. The Sheriff admitted that a tent was “only canvas” and could be uplifted easily. Tent flaps were usually open for ventilation, and inmates freely roamed in and out of the tents. A lockdown to confine inmates was impossible. According to one former inmate, “[Y]ou can do whatever you want in the tents.”

Contraband of various kinds, including weaponry, was pervasive throughout the tents.  Some inmates returning from work release brought in contraband, but much more came in over the perimeter fences. The tents were surrounded by two chain link fences about twelve feet high and seven feet apart. Outside access to these fences could be gained from a nearby road, a parking lot, or the wall of a nearby office building. Inmates regularly obtained forbidden items by having them tossed over the fences, an activity facilitated by the absence of guards in the yard. Contraband items included cigarettes, matches, lighters, fireworks, magazines, knives, drugs, and food. The Sheriff and other jail authorities knew about the delivery of contraband across the fences.

Inmate fights were common. Some were spontaneous acts of violence over cigarettes or candy; others were arranged as a means of dispute resolution. Groups of inmates would sometimes “beat down” an inmate as they did Flanders. These fights often occurred without any intervention by guards. Unless a guard was in the yard, inmates could engage in combat without detection.  Jail authorities knew about the assaults. Detention officers frequently received reports from inmates that another inmate or inmates were “after” them. Some inmates displayed obviously fresh injuries. Jail authorities were also aware that most assaults were unreported. Inmates were often reluctant to report problems for fear of being branded a “snitch” and suffering retaliation. An inmate also might refrain from reporting threats because “protective custody” meant being “locked down” for twenty-three hours of each day.

Tent City inmates had access to and used a variety of objects as weapons. Fire extinguishers, which the Fire Marshal required to be easily accessible, served as clubs. Tent stakes could be worked free and were easily hidden. Jail personnel had been instructed to inspect for loose stakes. But missing stakes were simply replaced and no effort was made to prevent future removal. Other available weapons included tent side poles, padlocks, broomsticks, rocks, soap, and sharpened pens, pencils, and toothbrushes.

Sheriff Arpaio acknowledged at trial that objects had been used as weapons in Tent City. When asked about the rocks, rebar and tent poles, he said: “I will not deny that these can be used and have been used as weapons in [Tent City]….” He admitted being told about incidents of inmates throwing rocks at the guards.  The Sheriff said he lacked knowledge about the number and positioning of the Tent City guards. He denied that violence was related to a decreased level of inmate supervision. The Sheriff also denied knowing who Flanders was or having any knowledge about the assault. He did not recall reading investigative reports. At the same time, he insisted: “If there is any serious violence [in Tent City], I am sure I would know about it.”

Both the Sheriff and the County acknowledged that the Sheriff was responsible for operating the County’s jails and had ultimate authority over them. Sheriff Arpaio had conceived the idea for housing inmates in tents during his election campaign. After he was elected, he created Tent City. The Sheriff lacked prior experience in operating correctional institutions and conducted no study before creating Tent City. Yet no other institution like it existed in the United States.

Hearing this (and more) evidence, the jury returned a verdict for Mr. Flanders, awarding him $440,532 in actual damages and $195,000 in punitive damages.

Sheriff Arpaio and Maricopa County appealed. Mr. Robbins defended the jury’s carefully considered verdict before the Arizona Court of Appeals, which affirmed the verdict. The Court of Appeals held that the evidence fairly showed Sheriff Arpaio’s deliberate indifference:

Nor did the evidence fail to show that defendants knew Flanders had been subject to substantial risk. Viewed most favorably to Flanders, the evidence demonstrated that defendants knew that all inmates of Tent City were subjected to a substantial risk of violence. Unlike the cases on which defendants rely, the evidence in this case amounts to more than proof of a few isolated incidents or of violence inherent in every penal institution.

The Court of Appeals further observed:

Flanders presented evidence that violence occurred with considerable and needless frequency. He presented evidence that, among other things, the Sheriff and his deputies had actual knowledge that prisoners used rebar tent stakes and tent poles as weapons and did nothing to prevent it. The Sheriff admitted knowing about, and in fact intentionally designing, some conditions at Tent City that created a substantial risk of inmate violence: i.e., the lack of individual security and inmate control inherent in a tent facility; the small number of guards; a mixed inmate population subject to overcrowding, extreme heat, and lack of amenities. 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.

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky reportedly said that “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Mr. Flanders was sentenced to one year in the county jail for a crime he committed, and he was willing to accept his punishment accordingly.  However, he was not sentenced to a lifetime of pain and permanent brain injury. Sheriff Arpaio is fond of saying, “if you do the crime, you’ll do the time in Maricopa County.” However, Mr. Flanders’ “time” was one year, not a lifetime. Due to Sheriff Arpaio’s disregard of the dangerous conditions in Tent City, Mr. Flanders was compelled to serve a life sentence to which he had never been sentenced. No amount of money can compensate Mr. Flanders for the permanent brain impairment he now has. However, Robbins & Curtin pursued justice for Mr. Flanders, hopefully providing him with a remedy that eases his own pain while alerting politicians that deviations from our Constitution will not go unchecked.

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