The biggest part of the sheriff's job is running the jails, and Arpaio saw that there was political gold to be spun there. The voters had declined to finance new jail construction, and so, in 1993, Arpaio, vowing no troublemakers would be released on his watch because of overcrowding, procured a consignment of Army-surplus tents and had them set up, surrounded by barbed wire, in an industrial area in southwest Phoenix. "I put them up next to the dump, the dog pound, the waste-disposal plant," he told me. Phoenix is an open-air blast furnace for much of the year. Temperatures inside the tents hit a hundred and thirty-five degrees. Still, the tents were a hit with the public, or at least with the conservative majority that voted. Arpaio put up more tents, until Tent City jail held twenty-five hundred inmates, and he stuck a neon "VACANCY" sign on a tall guard tower. It was visible for miles.
His popularity grew. What could he do next? Arpaio ordered small, heavily publicized deprivations. He banned cigarettes from his jails. Skin magazines. Movies. Coffee. Hot lunches. Salt and pepper--Arpaio estimated that he saved taxpayers thirty thousand dollars a year by removing salt and pepper. Meals were cut to two a day, and Arpaio got the cost down, he says, to thirty cents per meal. "It costs more to feed dogs than it does the inmates," he told me. Jail, Arpaio likes to say, is not a spa-- it's punishment. He wants inmates whose keenest wish is never to get locked up again. He limits their television, he told me, to the Weather Channel, C-Span, and, just to aggravate their hunger, the Food Network. For a while, he showed them Newt Gingrich speeches. "They hated him," he said cheerfully. Why the Weather Channel, a British reporter once asked. "So these morons will know how hot it's going to be while they are working on my chain gangs."
Arpaio wasn't kidding about chain gangs. Foreign television reporters couldn't get enough footage of his inmates shuffling through the desert. New ideas for the humiliation of people in custody--whom the Sheriff calls, with pervasive disgust, "criminals," although most are actually awaiting trial, not convicted of any crime--kept occurring to him. He put his inmates in black-and-white striped uniforms. The shock value of these retro prisoner outfits was powerful and complex. There was comedy, nostalgia, dehumanization, even a whiff of something annihilationist. He created female chain gangs, "the first in the history of the world," and, eventually, juvenile chain gangs. The chain gangs' tasks include burying the indigent at the county cemetery, but mainly they serve as spectacles in Arpaio's theater of cruelty. "I put them out there on the main streets," he told me. "So everybody sees them out there cleaning up the trash, and parents say to their kids, 'Look, that's where you're not going if you're not good.'" The law-and-order public loved it, and the Sheriff's fame spread. Rush Limbaugh praised him, and blurbed his book. Phil Donahue berated him.
Arpaio's one term campaign promise had to be shelved. Opinion polls found that Sheriff Jose, as he was called, was the most popular politician in Arizona. The Democrats didn't even bother running a candidate against him in 1996. In fact, he often says, the governorship has long been his for the taking. But he likes being sheriff--he pronounces it "shurf." He got a tank from the Army, had the howitzer muzzle painted with flames and "Sheriff Arpaio's War on Drugs" emblazoned on the sides, and rode in it, with Ava, in the Fiesta Bowl Parade. He decreed that all of his inmates--there are now roughly ten thousand of them, double the number when he took office--must wear pink underwear. And pink socks with pink flip-flops. Even pink handcuffs. Pink, he explains, mock-sincerely, is a
"I know just how far I can go," Arpaio told me. "That's the thing."
His deputies, particularly his jail guards, seem to have less sense of how far they can go. Thousands of lawsuits and legal claims alleging abuse have been filed against Arpaio's department by inmates--or, in the case of deaths in detention, but their families. A federal investigation found that deputies had used stun guns on prisoners already strapped into a "restraint chair." The family of one man who died after being forced into the restraint chair was awarded more than six million dollars as the result of a suit in federal court. The family of another man killed in the restraint chair got $8.25 million in a pre-trial settlement. (This deal was reached after the discovery of a surveillance video that showed fourteen guards beating, choking, and suffocating the prisoner, and after the sheriff's office was accused of discarding evidence, including the crushed larynx of the deceased.) To date, lawsuits bought against Arpaio's office have cost Maricopa County taxpayers forty-three million dollars, according to some estimates. But the Sheriff has never acknowledged any wrongdoing in his jails, never apologized to the victims or their families. In fact, many of the officers involved have been promoted.
Other jails get sued, of course. The Phoeniz New Times found that, between 2004 and 2008, the county jails of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston, which together house more than six times as many inmates as Maricopa, were sued a total of forty-three times. During the same period, Arpaio's department was sued over jail conditions almost twenty-two hundred times in federal district court. Last year, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care withdrew the health accreditation of Maricopa County's jails for failing to meet its standards, and a federal judge refused to life a long standing consent decree on the jails, finding that conditions remained unconstitutional for pre-trial detainees. (The consent decree mandates that the jails be monitored. But it hasn't had much effect.)
Remarkably, Arpaio has paid almost no political price for running jails that are so patently dangerous and inadvertently expensive. Indeed, until recently there were few local or state politicians willing to criticize him publicly. Those who have, including members of the county board of supervisors, which controls his budget, tend to find themselves under investigation by the sheriff's office. The Phoenix New Times ran an investigation of Arpaio's real-estate dealings that included Arpaio's home address, which he argued was possibly a violation of state law. When the paper revealed that it had received an impossibly broad subpoena, demanding, among other things, the Internet records of all visitors to its web site in the previous two and a half years, sheriff's deputies staged late-night raids on the homes of Michael Lacey and James Larkin, executives of Village Voice Media, which owns the New Times. The deputies arrested both men for, they said, violating grand-jury secrecy. (The county attorney declined to prosecute, and it turned out that the subpoenas were issued unlawfully.)
Outspoken citizens also take their chances. Last December, remarks critical of Arpaio were offered during the public-comment period at a board of supervisors meeting, and four members of the audience were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct--for clapping. (Hmmmm, that charge sounds familiar...) Their cases are pending.
Some local politicians have begun to speak up. Phil Gordon, the mayor of Phoenix, publicly denounced Arpaio last year for abuses of power. Gordon told me in his office recently that the Sheriff has imposed a "reign of terror" on Maricopa County. But the mayor was referring neither to the jails nor to the intimidation of critics. He was talking mainly about a wide-ranging campaign, carried out by Arpaio in recent years, against undocumented immigrants in Maricopa County.
Unfortunately, the New Yorker want you to pay in order to read the article. Well, the good folks at newslinx.org said fuck that noise. Something this important shouldn't come w/a price tag.
Reasonable Doubt: a five-part series on Arpaio that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting
Arpaio on The Colbert Report (thanks acmeeoy !)