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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Arpaio: Maricopa County's King of Cruel

Inmates walk alongside Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix. (photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

By Sadhbh Walshe
Guardian UK
30 June 12

n the southwest corner of Phoenix, Arizona, a large neon vacancy sign hanging from a watchtower looms over the Maricopa County jail complex, home to the infamous "tent city" – a facility as notorious as the tough guy Sheriff Joe Arpaio who makes it his business to keep it full. Arpaio's methods of rounding up and detaining prisoners, and the conditions to which they are subjected once inside his jails, have been relentlessly criticized by human rights groups. Yet, there is no indication that the vacancy light at the complex will be switched off anytime soon.

Last month, the federal government filed a lawsuit against Arpaio, accusing him of racial profiling and numerous civil rights violations for allowing (and encouraging) his deputies to make broad sweeps of Latino neighborhoods and rounding up anyone who they suspect might be in the US illegally or who cannot produce papers on request. Seeming nervous or avoiding eye contact with police has been cause enough to make arrests. Having brown skin helps, too.

Arpaio has ridiculed the lawsuit as a politically motivated act, and the sweeps are expected to continue, particularly in light of the recent supreme court ruling that held up a key portion of Arizona's SB1070 immigration law known as the "show me your papers" clause.

It is inside his jails, however, that the most egregious human rights violations occur. Last weekend, during a protest rally at the jail organized by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), Reverend Peter Morales, UUA's president, was taken on a tour of the complex. Morales said the first thing that struck him was the oppressive wall of heat. At this time of year, temperatures inside the tent city reach up to 140º. There are no fans. Needless to say, there is no air conditioning.

Morales spoke to a few inmates during the tour and one of the issues they raised was the fact that they are not given enough time to refill their water containers. They also complain about the food. Inmates are fed only twice a day and Arpaio has boasted in the past of the food being rotten; green bologna is a specialty.

There is a provision in the much-heralded US constitution, known as the eight amendment, which is supposed to protect prisoners from being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. I'm no constitutional lawyer, but housing people in 140º temperatures without so much as a fan and limiting their access to drinking water sounds pretty cruel to me.

But there is also an unusual element to Arpaio's punitive ideals. For years now, he has been forcing male inmates to wear pink underwear in a deliberate attempt to humiliate them. Their towels, socks and sweaters are also pink. Every so often, the pink-clad prisoners are marched through the streets of Phoenix, so the city's residents can bask in their humiliation.

Arpaio claims his pink underwear tactics are all about reducing crime and saving taxpayer money. Unfortunately, it seems they are achieving neither. A 2009 report by the conservative Goldwater Institute found that not only has violent crime gone up in Maricopa County (homicides alone increased 166% between 2004 and 2007). So, too, have costs. The combination of budget overruns, overtime payments and the millions of dollars in settlements paid out to plaintiffs who sued for wrongful arrest and detention have made a mockery of the sheriff's claims that he is saving his constituents money.

Beyond wasting tax payer dollars while compromising public safety, there is a bigger issue at play here. A new documentary called Two Americans (featuring Arpaio as one, and a little girl called Katherine Figueroa as the other) highlights the human cost of his petty cruelties in a heartbreaking way. Figueroa is a US-born citizen, but her Mexican parents are not. When they were rounded up and detained in one of Arpaio's sweeps, the nine-year-old girl found herself landed an activist role at the center of America's increasingly fraught immigration debate. Weeping before a congressional hearing, this American child, who is now without parental care, issued a plaintive plea to the sheriff to release her mother and father. She said she knows they were detained "because they weren't born here and they say that's against the law," but still, she begged for clemency.

Her pleas, and the pleas of many other children in similar predicaments, have not yet been answered. Despite the mounting criticism, Arpaio has shown no inclination to change his ways. In a speech to supporters, he laughed off accusations of racial profiling, lambasted the US Department of Justice (DOJ) for having the nerve to interfere in his business and boasted "we arrested 500 more (Latinos) just for spite."

Eventually, the nearly 80-year-old Arpaio's wings will be clipped. Either the federal lawsuit will proceed to trial or he may eventually retire. Until then, it is not the pink-clad prisoners, but those who voted him into office and have been cheering him along for decades, who should be feeling mortified.


Anonymous said...

He is an egomaniac who will do or say anything to make the nightly news. An incompetent administrator, a financial disaster and an obvious bully, he must be elected out of office.

Anonymous said...