The sheriff who issues pink underwear

Opinion

Meet Joe Arpaio, husband, father, grandfather and the toughest sheriff in America, as he calls himself. Elected in 1992 to run the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) in Phoenix, Ariz., the fourth largest sheriff’s office in the nation, he runs a jail system which houses approximately 8,000 individuals. Many of them are there awaiting trial because they could not afford bail; those convicted are serving sentences of less than a year.

A sterling example of the prevalent “get-tough-on-crime” policies, Arpaio requires chain gang prisoners to provide thousands of dollars of free community services such as cleaning streets, painting over graffiti and burying the deceased indigent in the county’s potters’ field. He boasts that one of the gangs is the nation’s only women’s chain gang. The women often choose to serve there because it is preferable to the alternative: lockdown, where they are confined, four women to an 8- by 12-foot cell, for 23 hours a day. All prisoners on chain gangs wear black-and-white striped uniforms. Arpaio introduced this measure in 1997, as he says, to make examples of the prisoners.

Last month Sheriff Arpaio ordered the approximately 500 undocumented immigrants in his jails to register for the draft.

No coddling of criminals in Maricopa. After all, he says, jails are not country clubs. Smoking is forbidden as are coffee, salt, pepper and ketchup; reading material is monitored; there are no movies nor is any recreation provided; unrestricted television is banned. Should a prisoner need to see a nurse he or she must pay $10 for the privilege.

Apparently because, by his own testimony, he is slightly overweight and on a restricted diet, Arpaio does his prisoners the service of restricting theirs as well: he recently cut the daily caloric intake from 3,000 to 2,500. He boasts the average prisoner meal costs the state but 20 cents; prisoners get only two of them a day. The food is often reported to be old and rotten. Small wonder: it is often surplus food. By contrast, food for the department’s dogs costs $1.15 a day per dog.

Shortly after Arpaio took office in 1993 he expanded the state’s policy of housing prisoners in tents. According to former department employees, he emptied an entire floor of one jail to accomplish this. He is thus able to say, and does say, that he will always be able to house anyone picked up or condemned to his jail system. The tent cities, as they are called, oblige their over 2,000 inhabitants to live under the broiling Arizona sun year round. In the summer the temperature can reach 120 degrees. Even in the fall and winter it is close to 100 degrees during the day. At night it can become very cold.

The Maricopa County posse program has been in existence since the ’30s. It is a volunteer system that provides community services such as search and rescue operations and enforcement support. Or that is what it did prior to the arrival of Arpaio, who expanded the posse to 3,200 individuals. Their duties now include rounding up “deadbeat” parents, patrolling malls during holiday season and, in the county’s “red light” districts, fighting prostitution. Just how these are accomplished Sheriff Arpaio does not specify. He justifies the expanded duties saying they are essentially free services to the community.

The MCSO web site (www.mcso.org) enables one to see mug shots (in full color!) and details about the arrest of anyone held in the jail system. There is a “Crime of the Week,” which displays all those arrested for a particular offense. When this writer last accessed the site that offense was DUI – Driving Under the Influence (of alcohol). The viewer can pick and choose offenses and see mug shots and details on any prisoner held for that particular infringement of the law. Some of the more questionable offenses listed are “family offenses,” “insurance violations,” “interfere with judicial processing,” “profession and occupation violations,” “transportation violations,” and “watercraft violations.” Mug shots and details can also be obtained for particular prisoners by supplying a prisoner’s booking number or name.

And one final humiliation: the sheriff requires all prisoners to wear pink underwear.

What this regime of torture accomplishes is to make this kind of treatment an acceptable part of the national get-tough-on-crime policy. Arpaio explains it in detail on the MCSO web site, bragging that it teaches wrongdoers the evil of their ways. To the prisoner who expresses dissatisfaction he says simply, “Well, don’t come back.” Is it any wonder that human rights groups regard his jail system as the harshest in the country?

Sheriff Arpaio is running for re-election this year with his policies as his platform. He says he welcomes suggestions from the public. You can send your comments to Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, 100 West Washington, Suite 1900, Phoenix, AZ 85003, or call 800-352-4553 (in state) or 602-256-100 (out of state). You can also submit comments online at www.mcso.org. As a start you might suggest he tender his resignation – effective immediately.



Julia Lutsky is a reader in New York City. She can be reached at blaine.jack@prodigy.net.