A Supposedly Tough Sheriff

by Conor Friedersdorf

In The New Yorker, the estimable William Finnegan, whose book on South Africa is a minor masterpiece, goes down to Maricopa County to write a scathing profile of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who describes himself as the toughest lawman in America. Of course, he is the kind of "tough guy" whose adversaries are handcuffed and guarded by his armed underlings, and who signals his manliness by procuring a military tank to ride on a parade route. But never mind these petty criticism. What really galls are perverse publicity stunts like this one:

In 2005, he forced nearly seven hundred prisoners, wearing nothing but pink underwear and flip-flops, to shuffle four blocks through the Arizona heat, pink-handcuffed together, to a new jail. When they arrived, one prisoner was made to cut a pink ribbon for the cameras. This elaborate degradation, which is remembered fondly by Sheriff Joe's fans, was ostensibly in the name of security--the men were strip-searched both before and after the march. But Arpaio also told reporters, "I put them on the street so everybody could see them."

Elsewhere in the article, we learn how the sheriff manages the jails under his control:

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 the dogs than it does the inmates," he told me. Jail, Arpaio likes to say, is not a spa--it's punishment.

Of course, lots of criminals inhabit his jails, but they also include people awaiting trails wherein they'll be found innocent. That is reason enough to object to the man's methods. More generally, the citizens who keep re-electing him as sheriff ought to learn that "sadistic publicity hound" isn't a quality you want in a man setting the tone for the treatment of inmates. Elsewhere in the article, we learn about guard brutality, inmate deaths, and federal scrutiny. It's not surprising, given the attitude projected by the man at the top.

I'm grateful for all the attention Andrew has given to prisoner abuse in American run prisons overseas. As shameful is the way many inmates are treated in America, whether in facilities where serial rape goes unpunished, or places like Maricopa County, where voters not only tolerate the most thoughtless kind of faux-toughness, but reward it.