It’s obvious America’s prison system has got a lot of problems—from the horrific number of people behind bars to the folks who are serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes to the sick way corporate suits profit off human misery. Those are systemic issues that get debated all over the place, but we could make incarceration more humane for a lot of folks if we just got rid of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
You probably know who Sheriff Joe is already—he’s been the most “controversial” figure in American law enforcement for two decades, which is a nice way to say he’s a vicious, small-minded cocksucker who loves publicity, being arbitrarily cruel to the inmates in his charge, and racial profiling. A list of bullshit he’s perpetrated can be found here, if you’re curious (“highlights” include unconstitutional conditions in the county jails and the time a SWAT team set the house of an innocent man on fire), but it’s important to note that this 81-year-old sideshow wields a lot of power: he’s served six straight terms as the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, which is the fourth most populous county in the US and bigger than 23 states. He’s wielded this authority most recently by pressing charges against a Canadian teen who left some jokey threats on his website, and by putting inmates in county jail on a bread-and-water diet for being “unpatriotic,” a.k.a. he put American flag stickers in 8,500 cells, and punished anyone who defaced them.
Sheriff Joe has publicly said his jails are meant to punish their inhabitants, who he considers criminals. This is fucking INSANE when you realize these inmates are mostly being held before their trials and are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. Not that Sheriff Joe gives a shit about their legal status or the constitution; in his infamous “Tent City” jail inmates freeze in the winter, roast in the summer, and only get served two meals a day of substandard jail slop. There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s torture. In the jails I’ve spent time in, even three meals a day is not even close to being a decent diet.
How does this fat waste of carbon stay in power? Mostly because the elderly voters who live around Phoenix love him; he’s one of their own, a conservative borderline racist who will work tirelessly to save them from the brown people. Thirty percent of Maricopa County residents are Hispanic, but unbelievably they haven’t been unable to unseat him, maybe because of alleged shady efforts to disenfranchise the Latino vote.
I can just imagine retired guys sitting in their air-conditioned homes—with plastic covers on their couches and shit—reading the newspaper, Veteran’s Day still fresh in their minds, and seeing Sheriff Joe on the front page again. “You hear what Arpaio did now, honey? He’s punishing the un-American criminals! He’s making ‘em listen to “God Bless America” and the national anthem every dang day and makin’ ‘em sing along to it! That’ll show ‘em!”
Making inmates sing is such petty BS, but petty BS is pretty much the prison experience. It’s not unusual for jails to have flags all over the place or to play the national anthem over the loudspeaker. At least in New York State, one of the tickets that correctional officers like to dole out is the “destruction of state property” violation, which can be used to punish inmates for things as inane as tearing up socks to use as blindfolds to help them sleep at night. This sort of behavior is not something new from the pork-chop patrol, this is just Sheriff Joe acting up on Veteran’s Day and reminding the public that he’s all that stands between them and a bunch of anti-Americans from south of the border, and hard-working Americans’ tax dollars will not go toward nourishing these men and women. Thanks, Joe... You’re really making a difference.
By the way, I’m sure some inmates prefer bread and water to the new all-vegetarian diet he recently implemented. "Vegetarian" in this context means either rice, instant mashed potato flakes, or pasta with slop on top of it. This highly unbonerable slop is called “textured soy protein” (TVP for short), and it’s worse than grade FF meat. On top of everything, Sheriff Joe is charging inmates a dollar a day for their own meals. He blames budget problems, but you know what a real cost-cutting measure would be? Not locking up these cats in the first place.
To me it’s pretty clear that Sheriff Joe is an evil man, but he’s not completely insane—he knows what his constituents want, and he gives it to them. Fortunately, I think his style of law enforcement will disappear with him. Things like pinstripes and pink underwear, the chain gang, and other bogus tough-on-crime tactics are cruel but they’re also unfashionable. The US is locking up fewer people than it once was, there’s a backlash against “three strikes” laws at last, and there are more and more stories about how fucked up the system is. Sheriff Joe is gonna make a few more headlines before he dies or loses an election, and it’ll be around that time a lot of his supporters will kick the bucket too. Thank Big Baby Jesus...
Bert Burykill is the pseudonym of our prison correspondent, who has spent time in a number of prisons in New York State. He tweets here.
Previously: Screwed by Antigun Laws