ACLU: “America’s Toughest Sheriff” Not Above the Law

Amie Newman

A Sheriff in Arizona has gotten away with implementing his own illegal rules for female prisoners, blocking abortion access and engaging in racial profiling. The ACLU has stepped in. Will his "reign of terror" end?

The ACLU filed a motion today to hold Arizona’s Maricopa County’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio in contempt of court for refusing to comply with an order that allows for female prisoners in Arizona to be transported by jail officials to access abortion – abortion services that are paid for by the prisoners themselves.

Apparently, under Sheriff Arpaio’s orders his county jail had an "unofficial rule" that jail officials should not provide transportation to female prisoners seeking an abortion. A case was brought before the Superior Court of Arizona, in August 2005 – a full three years ago, where the court ruled that this was in violation of women’s reproductive rights and struck down the policy. But Arpaio paid no attention and continued to play by his own rules.

Forward to May 2008 when a female prisoner ("Mary Roe") requested transportation so that she could access abortion services and again was turned down by jail officials. Roe’s lawyer even stepped in and talked to "Sheriff Joe’s" Deputy Chief (an official who was aware of the court order requiring transportation services for female prisoners) and Roe’s request was still turned down.

The ACLU had to step in to make sure Arpaio followed the law – albeit 4 weeks later, thereby postponing Roe’s abortion.

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"The courts have already confirmed our position that Arizona prison
officials cannot ignore the medical needs of prisoners simply because they do
not agree with the decision to end a pregnancy," said Alessandra Soler
Meetze, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arizona. "Now, given the
disregard of the court ruling by Sheriff Arpaio and his staff, it appears that
we need to spell out the law more clearly to protect future women

According to the ACLU, the motion asks that the court require jails to post signs in English and Spanish that let women know of their right to transportation. In addition, the motion asks that employees be required to sign a statement acknowledging that they have been informed of the law.

But, the larger story here is that it is long past time for federal authorities to step in and acknowledge that Sheriff Arpaio and his fellow county jail officials seem to be behaving as if they are above the law. This is just one of three separate cases that the ACLU has filed against Sheriff Joe and his alleged criminal gang. He, along with the Sheriff’s office and Maricopa County are being sued by a coalition of five different immigrants rights organizations (along with the ACLU) for racial profiling of Latinos.

It is also worth noting that the barriers to accessing legal abortion Sheriff Joe and his colleagues have illegally constructed are exactly why the legal right to abortion is moot for many populations of women in this country. 

Legal and safe abortion is protected under our constitution in Roe v. Wade. But when ideologues who believe that they know best bar women from accessing what they legally have a right to access, this becomes discriminatory and criminal. 

There seems to be a clear link to "right of refusal" clauses and pharmacy refusals. The right of health care providers to exercise their religious freedom and the rights of pharmacists to do the same must be weighed against what, legally, women have a right to access. These "rights" must include women’s rights to access timely, quality health care services free from discrimination and in accord with our federal laws. 

Taken together, these consistent barriers – some vaguely legal and some not – may constitute legal discrimination against women (are we talking about any other "class" of people?!) and should be treated as such. 

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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