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 www.mcso.org|
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, www.mcso.org, 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|
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.
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.