The headline grabbed my attention right away: "Suit settled for $2 mil in county jail death,'' read the headline in the Jan. 15 edition of the Arizona Republic.
The story reported that the county agreed to pay $2 million to the parents of Brian Crenshaw, a mentally disabled man who died while in the custody of the Maricopa County Jail System, to settle a wrongful-death suit facing the cash-strapped county.
In the story, a lawyer for Sheriff Joe Arpaio said, in so many words, that the sheriff would rather have fought the charge in a trial, but they decided instead to hand over $2 million in taxpayer's money, out of kindness, I suppose.
Crenshaw is one of 11 inmates who have died in Sheriff Joe's care during his tenure as sheriff. Some, like Crenshaw, suffered from mental illnesses, which strikes me as particuarly tragic. If you want the details of Crenshaw's story, go to: http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/0115settlement0115.html
Sheriff Joe characterizes those deaths as accidents, more or less. Nothing to get all worked up about. They're just inmates, after all, not dogs.
Two thoughts struck me as I read the sad account of Crenshaw's death: First, Sheriff Joe's jail must be the most accident-prone place on earth, ya know?.
Second, I wonder what's become of Lenny.
Let me back up a second. As my regular readers know, beginning on March 2 of 2007, I served 122 days for a felony DUI. I was locked up for 34 of those days at Maricopa County's Durango Jail in Phoenix. For about three weeks, I was, for lack of a better term, the leader of a prison gang, which still amazes even me.
Briefly, here's how that came about. In prison, the inmates self-segregate according to race, with each race having its own power structure. As distasteful as that must sound, I found there was one benefit to such a system in that it provided a means of settling disputes between races. If, for example, a white inmate got into a dispute with a black inmate, the matter was settled by the "heads'' of the two races. Assuming the two heads could agree on a resolution, those issues were dealt with such a way as to prevent fights.
I did not aspire to hold office when I arrived at Durango. But when Sammy, the No. 1 head of the white inmates, was moved to another part of the jail, Kurt, the second in command, took over. Only Kurt turned out to have the diplomatic skills of Atilla the Hun. He had the ability to turn a small dispute into an impending race war. And, in prison, when your race goes to war, you go, too. Nobody is allowed to stand on the sidelines.
Fearful that Kurt's reign would ultimately lead to a bloodbath, the other white inmates urged me to take over as head. I think they saw me as something of a father figure, truth be known, someone who could negotiate and keep the peace. Kurt was more than happy to abdicate the post. All these squabbles were giving him headaches, he said.
So I took over for purely selfish reasons. I figured it was in my best interest to see if I could make violence the last resort rather than the first option.
I succeeded, too, although there were some tense moments. I don't mind saying that I looked forward to the day of my sentencing as much to get out of the inmate gang hierarchy as to escape the dehumanizing conditions of county jail.
The day before my sentencing, I met Lenny, which is not his real name. He was one of eight new inmates to arrived in our pod (cellblock). He was an enormous kid, 6-foot-7, probably 260 pounds. My first thought was it was nice to have a big guy on our team. After all, good weapons make good diplomacy sometimes. So I introduced myself, told him I'd meet with him later to fill him in on some things he'd need to know about life at Durango.
He didn't say much. I attributed that to the shock on being thrown into a cellblock with a bunch of strangers. Man, didn't I know that feeling.
But it wasn't 10 minutes until one of the other race's head burst into my cell, where I was writing a letter.
"You gotta do something about your new boy,'' he said.
"What do you mean?''
He went on to explain that Lenny had tried to go to the bathroom when it was closed for cleaning.
Inmates are responsible for what passes for cleaning at Durango. Each night, a half-hour after dinner, a group of inmates clean the bathroom. While they are doing this, no one is permitted to enter. A trash barrel is placed at the entrance so the other inmates know it's cleaning time.
But Lenny didn't figure it out. He simply slid the barrel to the side and walked in. One of the men doing the cleaning stopped him.
"Bathroom's closed,'' he told Lenny.
"But where am I supposed to go to take a piss?'' Lenny asked.
The other inmate shrugged, pointing to the trash can, sort of as a joke.
Only Lenny didn't take it as a joke. In a moment, he had lowered his striped pants and was about to relieve himself when the other inmate yelled at him to stop.
"Are you f------ crazy?'' he screamed.
And, of course, the matter was brought to me.
"I'll talk to him,'' I told the other heads, who had assembled to discuss what should be done about the incident.
I found Lenny sitting in his bunk, rocking back and forth.
"Hey,'' I said. "We need to talk about what just happened.''
"I didn't do nothing,'' he said. "I wanted to take a piss. I did what they told me. And now everybody wants to fight me.''
And I knew, both by his tone and his words, that the huge figure who sat rocking in his bunk was really a little child, an innocent.
"Slim, why does everybody want to fight me?'' Lenny asked.
"I told him that it was all a misunderstanding.
"Maybe it's better for you to stay here on your bunk for a while,'' I told him. "I'll take care of everything. It will be OK.''
"OK,'' he said quietly.
"I'll come back and check on you in a little while, OK? I've got some books. Would you like to look at some books? I can find some magazines, if you would rather have that.''
"I like magazines,'' he said.
"Great. I'll get some.''
"Slim?'' he said as I was turning to leave his cell.
"Slim, I don't like this place,'' he said, his voice quivering.
"Aw, you'll be fine,'' I said. "You'll get to know the other guys and you'll get used to things. Everybody feels the same way you feel when they first come here. It gets better. You'll see.''
I went back to my cell, whether the other heads were waiting to hear from me.
I told them about Lenny, that he was like a little child in his thinking. He wouldn't be any trouble, I told them, as long as they explained things to him in a way he could understand.
A few minutes later, I pulled Raymond aside. Raymond would take over as head of the whites when I left Durango the next day. "Take care of him,'' I said. "Don't let him out of your sight, OK?''
Raymond assured me he would watch over Lenny.
Just before night head count, when all the inmates are required to be in their own cells, I stopped in to see Lenny.
He was still on his bunk, but he was weeping now, giants sobs, heaving breaths, still rocking back and forth.
"Hey,'' I said, trying to sound comforting. "There's no reason for that. You're safe. Nothing bad is going to happen to you.''
"Slim,'' he said between great sobs. "Slim, why won't my mama come and get me? I don't like this place. I want to go home. Mama don't love me. She's mad at me for being bad. She won't come get me out of this place.''
I put my hand on his ernormous trembling shoulder.
"Your mama loves you,'' I said. "But she can't come get you, not right now. You have to stay here, but you're going to be OK. I tell you what: I'll get Raymond to help you write a letter to your mama tomorrow. That way, she can write back to you. What do you think of that? That's a good idea, huh?''
Lenny stopped sobbing. "Yeah, I guess,'' he said softly.
"Good,'' I said. "Now, go to sleep and I'll see you in the morning.''
That was a lie. I knew I'd be pulled out of the cellbock at 4 a.m. to be transported to Superior Court for sentencing. But I just couldn't think of a way to tell him I was leaving. Raymond would find him after the morning count and take care of him.
Lenny stretched out on his bunk and rolled over on his side.
"There you go,'' I said.
"Slim,'' he said. "I don't like this place.''
"I know,'' I said.
And that was the last I saw of Lenny.
I don't know what has become of him.
But when I read to story about Brian Crenshaw, I wonderd about Lenny.
And I wondered if Brian was like Lenny. I wondered if Brian's last months of this earth were filled with confusion and fear. I wondered if a misunderstanding led to a beat-down that ended in his death.
I wondered if Brian's last thoughts were the ones Lenny voiced that night at Durango:
"Slim, why does everybody want to fight me?''
I wondered about all 11 of those inmates who have died in Sheriff Joe's care over the past 12 years.
And the more I think about it, the more surprised I am.
I have lived in Sheriff Joe's hell-hole.
So I am not surprised that so many have died.
I am surprised that so few seem to care.