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PHOENIX (AP) — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that Phoenix-area jails will remain under the court's oversight to ensure adequate medical and mental health care services for inmates awaiting trial.
U.S. District Judge Neil Wake issued a 66-page ruling, more than six months after Maricopa County officials asked him to end his oversight that arose from a 37-year-old lawsuit over jail conditions.
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 county sheriff's office effectively ended in May 2012 when Wake ruled deficiencies in food and sanitary conditions at the jails had been corrected sufficiently. But Wake continued his oversight of the jails' medical and mental health operations, which are run by the county and not Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office.
At an evidentiary hearing in March, attorneys for Maricopa County's Correctional Health Services sought an end to Wake's supervision. They said the county has made strides in making the changes required by the judge, such as expanding screenings for medical issues, suicide risks and other issues for people who are entering jail.
Lawyers for the county also told the judge that there are no current systemic constitutional violations within the jails.
"We said, 'Not so fast,' " said Eric Balaban, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "We investigated, bringing medical and mental health experts to the jail, and what we found showed Judge Wake that the jails have a long way to go before his order can be lifted."
ACLU attorneys who pushed the lawsuit said the care for inmates is inadequate and exposes them to unreasonable risk of harm.
They also 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.
Wake noted in his ruling that the jails had made improvements in medical staffing and treatment for some inmates suffering from drug and alcohol withdrawal. But he said issues involving suicide monitoring and placement for seriously mentally ill inmates remained unresolved.
The judge issued a timeline for the remaining issues, ordering defendants to prove full compliance by September 2015.
"The county is pleased that the ruling reflects the efforts made by CHS, and we look forward to concluding this litigation," county spokeswoman Cari Gerchick said.