Saturday, September 29, 2012

Truth beats fiction in the crazy world of Sheriff Joe

Last week I was sent one of those gung-ho emails about a US sherrif who had solved the problem of stray dogs in his district by getting prisoners to care for them, thus saving the county money (costs fell from $10m to $3m a year, it claims), providing care and an adoption scheme for the strays, and training prisoners in animal care. 
The email says his policies are so popular, he keeps getting re-elected, term after term (by a 83% majority last time, it claims).
It goes on to praise another scheme whereby prisoners grow their own food and earn income via a farm, which also produces fertiliser for a Christmas tree nursery, which, in turn, creates more income.
All sounds perfect.

Too good to be true, in fact. 

So I thought I'd check a few facts, to make sure it wasn't all fantasy.
Search for "Joe Arpaio" or "Maricopa County" and you'll find he's real enough – but there's much more to the story than that.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Picture: Rolling Stone magazine
Republican Sherrif Joe, now 80, is of Italian heritage and was born in Springfield, Mass., and has been head of law enforcement of Maricopa County, Arizona, for nearly 20 years. Before that he served in the US army and was a Fed with the DEA, serving overseas as well as in the US.
Sadly he undermines my theory that Americans who travel are more moderate than those who spend their whole lives in the US.
First elected in 1992, his eccentric tough stance has gradually been overshadowed by claims against the Sheriff’s Office of discrimination, corruption and financial irregularities.
              In 1993 he launched the idea of a tent city for inmates to solve overcrowding problems, leading to complaints of breach of human rights as temperatures in the remote Arizona desert setting topped 100ºF (38ºC+) and often reached 120ºF (49ºC). He told them to suck it up – if it was good enough for US forces defending their country, it was good enough for convicts. Tours of Tent City can be booked; apparently all 2,126 inmates have been checked to ensure ‘dangerous and predatory individuals’ are not placed there, so apparently this is the ‘soft’ option.
              He stopped prisoners’ access to coffee (saving $150,000 a year, he claims), cigarettes, hot lunches, TV (except for education broadcasts in the evening) and banned porn.
              He makes prisoners pay for meals. According to Arpaio in 2003, it cost $1.15 a day to feed each guard dog, and 40c a day to feed each inmate.
              Convicts must also pay $10 for each visit to a nurse.
              If they want to write to their families they have to use special postcards with the sheriff’s picture on them.
              In 1995 he reinstated chain gangs, initially in striped uniforms with pink underwear.
              In 1996, to make it fair, he included female inmates too. Burial duty at the local cemetery was one regular task for women.
              He later launched a supposedly world-first juvenile volunteer chain gang, in which volunteers can earn high school credits towards a diploma.
              Inspired by the pink undies idea, in 2007 he forced men convicted of drunk driving to clean up the city in pink jail suits.
              The animal adoption sanctuary is housed in a former jail. Animals are supposedly rescued for abusive situations – a scary number of pit bulls are up for adoption, and a few seem to have dodgy temperaments, according to their details..

However attractive some of those ideas may be, critics find plenty to complain about.

Tent City, as it's called on  
Does the tough regime work? When inmates complain, Arpaio loves to retort: "If you don't like it, don't come back." But, according to CNN, jail spokeswoman Lisa Allen McPherson said that 60 per cent of inmates did in fact come back for more than one term.
Does it save money? Running costs have certainly dropped, but the legal bills have been hefty. Among the hundreds of inmate-related lawsuits, and at least $43 million paid in settlement claims, $8.5 million was paid to the family of Scott Norberg who reportedly died of asphyxiation as he struggled with guards in 1996; $2 million to the family of a blind man who died after being beated in jail, and $1.5 million was awarded to an inmate denied medical treatment for a perforated ulcer (he was arrested for driving with a suspended license). In several cases, it was alleged Arpaio’s office destroyed digital video evidence.
Do the chain gangs work? Catholic priest Father Bill Wack, who receives help from female prisoners in burying those too poor to pay for funerals – often babies and itinerants – told CNN: “It’s free labor and it’s undignified. How is this helping to rehabilitate anyone?”
Prisoners’ calories have been cut from 3,000 to 2,500 a day, but some complain that food is rotten, with spots of mould on meat and cheese.
Does the office protect and serve? “Integrity, accountability and community” is what is plastered across Arpaio’s website,, which encourages citizens to vote for the “mugshot of the day” and ranks lists of ‘deadbeat parents’, ‘sex crimes’, alongside boasts of how many illegal migrants have been detained. Trouble is, the mugshots are of people booked within the last three days, not those necessarily found guilty of any crime. While the page declares the caveat ‘Pre-trial inmates are innocent until proven guilty!’ one wonders how much mud sticks. Or if juries can truly claim to be impartial (and how can seven people have been charged with kidnapping in one day!?)

There are a whole host of accusations that have been leveled against Arpaio over the past 20 years.

Immigration issues hit
Arpaio, never one to shrink from publicity, also hit headlines more recently when he challenged Barack Obama about his US-citizenship, demanding to see his birth certificate.
His campaign against illegal migrants has led him to fighting two sets of legal action as a result of his so-called “crime suppression sweeps” that have led to complains of police targeting Hispanics for ID checks, traffic stops and detention. In December 2011, the US Justice Department said it had found cause to believe the sheriff’s office “has engaged in a pattern of misconduct that violates the Constitution and federal law” and launched civil action against him.
He is also facing a class action of racial discrimination brought by a number of Hispanics in Arizona, a battle that has been simmering since at least 2009.

Joe and Ava Arpaio in 2011. Picture: Gage Skidmore
Millions mis-spent
If that was not enough, there’s the accusations of misspending millions of dollars in taxpayer money.
Complaints laid in 2011 after a county budget office audit found Arpaio had used about $100 million designated for jail funds to pay deputies’ salaries.
Calling the findings a “payroll discrepancy issue”, Arpaio pledge to fix the problem internally and resisted calls for him to resign.
Other accusations were that there were frequent errors in managing inmate’s cash accounts, with deficits of hundreds of dollars in some cases; that the office spends 3-to-6 times more that other jurisdiction for extraditions; that outside bank accounts prevented county officials from monitoring transactions; and that sheriff’s officials charged “unusual expenses” to county -issued credit cards, including first-class upgrades to flights, entertainment, and stays at luxury hotels.

But wait - there’s more!
In late 2010 Arpaio's 2012 re-election campaign committee was fined for sending out flyers deemed illegal by the county election department's finance committee because they sought the defeat of a political opponent.

Don’t forget the steak knives!

For about four years the US Justice Department has been investigating Arpaio and his former chief deputy, David Hendershott and former County Attorney Andrew Thomas and his deputy Lisa Aubuchon. While the exact nature of the investigation was ever revealed, Thomas and Aubuchon were both disbarred earlier in 2012.
The gist of the proceedings is that those officials used their positions and power to press criminal charges against their political enemies: four judges were accused of racketeering by Thomas and Arpaio in December 2009, plus other cases.
However, in September the US Attorney’s Office in Phoenix announced it would not be filing federal or state criminal charges.
It seems there are no federal statutes that cover the alleged actions, and both sides complain the action (or lack of) is politically motivated.

Embezzlement charges
Previously Federal prosecutors ran an investigation in the late 1990s into allegations that David Hendershott (Arpaio’s deputy) embezzled funds from the sheriff’s office's pink-underwear sales and ordered surveillance of the sheriff's political enemies, including the former county attorney.
That probe ended with the U.S. Attorney's Office sending a letter to Hendershott clearing him of wrongdoing. The letter was issued in part because of the media attention the investigation received at the time.
On the Arizona Central website next to this story, Arpaio’s campaign team is running an advert offering a link to the true story.

Civil rights abused?
Locally he is loved. He boasts a “posse” of 2,500 ‘volunteers’ (vigilantes?) who go after prostitutes, graffiti artists and criminals at shopping malls (says CNN).
In charge of 7,500-10,000 inmates, he employs more than 3,400 staff, making Maricopa the nation’s third-largest sheriff’s department.
In April 2005, Arpaio's deputies arrested an Army reservist who held at gunpoint a group of Hispanics whom he believed were undocumented immigrants (writes the Huffington Post). The sheriff said the reservist had no right to take that step. The reservist was never prosecuted.

But others believe the degrading treatment breaks international treaties protecting human rights, which supposedly bind all US officials.
"The intent is humiliation of the inmates and political grandstanding for the public," said Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, a Washington think-tank that promotes reduced reliance on incarceration in the justice system. “It makes the sheriff look tough and that's all it does.”

Either way, it’s makes for great media.
Two Phoenix New Times editors were arrested by Maricopa deputies after a run-in with Arpaio; the case was dropped the next day and the prosecutor fired.
Another local paper, the East Valley Tribune, won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of five articles run in 2009 criticizing the decline in regular police protection due to the increased focus on arresting illegal immigrants. A series of sex cries are among those his agency allegedly failed to investigate.

So at 80 will he stand again for election? You betcha, although it’ll be his toughest campaign. According to the Huffington post, he has $4.2 in his campaign fund, and is still favourite, The AzCentral website puts his fundraising at more than $7.5 million, mostly for out-of-state donors, while his main opponent, former police Sgt. Paul Penzone is battling him with about $72,000.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Australia's barbie - can we fit another shrimp?

What an extraordinary week it’s been for viewing. 

On the world stage there’s been the brilliant Paralympics, where every athlete has a story worth telling; in Australia there has been the brilliant SBS series, Go Back to Where You Came From, which has stirred some fiery debates; within Australasia the YouTube video of New Zealand troops performing a spine-tingling haka to welcome home the bodies of their comrades who died in Afghanistan went viral, and for good reason; and here in Melbourne I was priviledged to see the Black Arm Band perform their celebration of Aboriginal culture and music, Dirtsong

The wider debate stirred up by the second series of Go Back to Where You Came From has been good, if only because I think the only people who watched it were probably the left-of-field folk (me included) who wanted to watch Peter Reith squirm and see how much heart was hidden under Angry Anderson’s tough, tattoed skin.
Former shock-jock Mike Smith had to be included so we really had someone to bag for being such a bastard. And that Imogen Bailey turned out to have some brains as well as looks I think surprised a lot of people – possibly even the producers.

But I digress. One of the conversations that sprung from this was with a woman at my gym who hadn’t seen the program; I was trying to describe the format, journey and outcomes to her.
She’s a lovely, compassionate person who I’ve seen support dozens of women in all shapes and sizes as they battle with fitness and body image at the gym, so ‘gobsmacked’ doesn’t convey how shocked I was when she said: “Well I’d be one of the ones turning back the boats around and shooting anyone who tried to land; they should wait their turn like everyone else.”

So few words, so many urban myths; where do you start?

Do you mention that Australia is legally obliged to give (a) protect those at risk in our waters and (b) give at least temporary asylum to those found to be genuine refugees; or point out that shooting is just a tad more illegal than any ‘illegality’ attached to landing without a passport?
How about that old chestnut about “waiting your turn”, when there’s no official list and no-one can tell you how long you have to wait (some on the show said they’d been living in limbo in Indonesia for years, accepted by the UN as refugees but still in danger of being arrested and not allowed to work).
And what about that “like everyone else” bit? – the vast majority of refugees arrive by plane then apply for asylum when they get here, and most of the ‘illegal immigrants’ expelled from Australia each year are Kiwis and Poms who’ve overstayed their visas or non-citizens who get deported after a stint in jail.
After all, I was an illegal immigrant for a year or two, I told her.

“But you’re different – they don’t assimilate,” was the reply.

OK so here’s the even bigger can of worms.

Did I assimilate because I speak English, have a reasonable level of education, some work experience, know how western ‘civilisation’ works and have been introduced to deodorant?
Or because I’m white and, for all intents and purposes, a Christian?
Let’s face it, assimilation is a two-way street. To fit in you have to both be willing to adapt – and be welcomed in by the dominant culture.

And, by definition, that ‘home’ culture will then take on an infinitesimal change because it has taken in that new person.

Surely it’s unrealistic to expect the Australian culture to be static, as some more ‘whitebread’ conservatives would chose? Even if no more migrants moved here for the next decade, the national character would still change: children would still want a new lexicon to their parents, TV shows would bring their own catchphrases and trends, magazines and visiting chefs would influence foods and flavours, and overseas fashions and music would have their impact.
Which is why Pauline Hanson got such a rude shock when she headed back to the Mother Ship of England and was met by Jamaican accents and the world’s best curry. I’ve met some Greek yayas who’ve had the same shock on going ‘home’ after decades, too.

In fact it’s ironic that the Gym Lady even considers assimilation an issue, as her family is part of the 40-50% of my suburb who originate from Italy; whole villages migrated here in the 1960s and their combined influence on the area – along with that of Greeks, Slavs and other Europeans – has been huge; there are many shops (the best delis and bakeries) in the area where you could barely work if you don’t speak Greek or Italian, and many of my elderly neighbours still struggle with English, even after 40+ years.

There are two official meanings to the verb assimilate:
  •         to take in and understand fully, as in integrating ideas and culture (and to absorb and digest/use – either literally or metaphorically)
  •           to cause to resemble/liken or to come to resemble/be like something.

Surely to fully assimilate, not only do you need the understanding and “becoming like” bits happening, but also the acceptance.
That will always be harder for people who look different to what is perceived to be the norm, whether it’s in skin colour, disability, clothing or behaviour. Once you get past the looks and get to know people, naturally you discover what you have in common (or not) and can a better view of the sort of person they are.

I’m sure some of our Paralympic champions know all about that.
And I’m dead sure our Aboriginal community knows far more than they want to.

In fact, the difference between the story of fighting for acceptance in their own land that underlines Dirtsong, and the way New Zealand’s white community has embraced the Maori tongue and culture – such as the haka – is quite revealing.
I was amazed on visiting NZ that Maori words are used throughout children’s programs such as Playschool, and that news readers greet their audience with “Kia Ora” instead of “Good evening”.
Sitting in the Recital Centre on Saturday, I reckon I could safely challenge any non-Aboriginals in the audience to know even one word in any of the hundreds of languages once used by indigenous Australians. To mark their loss, eleven languages were used in Dirtsong – although sadly the writers had to ask academics for help in the translating because so much of the knowledge has been lost through colonial attempts to ‘assimilate’ Aboriginals.

Yet where is the evidence of non-Aboriginal assimilation with the land of Australia?
Experts still disagree on how best to manage the land and my interest in Australian plants is regularly met with surprise and admissions of ignorance by those who are otherwise proud to be 4th, 5th, or 6th generation Australian; knowledge of its bird and animal life, or understanding of its climate and seasons is equally woeful for most city folk.

So perhaps we should consider the true meaning of assimilation before we go accusing others of sticking with the people and cultural norms that make folk feel ‘at home’.

After all, it’s the unfair judging of people before you get to know them that gives rise to the word prejudice.