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I Went Undercover in America's Toughest Prison

I didn’t believe that a concentration camp could exist in America until, in Phoenix, Arizona, I saw one with my own eyes. Maricopa County is a fuzzy-lawed place where sentenced and un-sentenced inmates alike do hard time together.

Everyone knows the US imprisons more people than any other country in the world. What they might not know is that, as an American citizen, you’re more likely to be jailed than if you were Chinese, Russian or North Korean; that, with 2.3 million inmates, there are currently the same amount of people imprisoned in the States as the combined populations of Estonia and Cyprus; and that once Americans are sent to jail, they tend to keep going back.


According to a recent study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics—a US Department of Justice agency—within six months of release 28 percent of inmates get rearrested for a new crime. After three years, the figure rises to 68 percent. By the end of five years, it’s an alarming 77 percent. But terrible recidivism rates have been a constant in the Land of the Free. The Pew Research Center issued its own report on the problem in 2011; the conclusion was bleak. Too many criminal offenders emerge from prison ready to offend again, and more than four out of 10 adult offenders in America return to prison within three years of their release. For too many Americans, the prison door keeps revolving.

How do we try to change whatever it was that brought someone into trouble with the law? And if that proves impossible, what is the best way that society can protect itself? I wanted to find out. I also wanted to see how much of what I knew—or thought I knew—about jail turned out to be true. So I wrote to corrections departments worldwide asking for access.

Russia, China, Hong Kong, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Jamaica, Sweden, Norway, France, the UK and Britain’s own off-shore tax haven, the Isle of Man all refused because my personal safety “could not be guaranteed.” The Zimbabwean prison service said that “the request was considered,” but they turned me down eventually. I even sent an email to Guantanamo Bay but got no reply.


Just as I was about to give up, I discovered that I could go to jail in America as an “undercover voluntary detainee.” With the right procedure I could gain admittance to “holding facilities” in Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota. My contacts in law enforcement helped cook up a plausible cover story: I was arrested for driving a stolen car on the wrong side of the road and found in possession of methamphetamine. The cover was funny because a) I cannot drive, and b) I had absolutely no idea what methamphetamine was.

The author getting his hair cut

I didn’t believe that a “concentration camp” could exist in America until, in Phoenix, Arizona, I saw one with my own eyes. Maricopa County is a fuzzy-lawed place where sentenced and un-sentenced inmates alike do hard time together. Maricopa encompasses Phoenix, one of the most conservative and violent cities in the state of Arizona. No story on jails in the USA is complete without a stretch here, for there is no bigger disgrace in America than the six jails of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO). One, Maricopa County Jail, became so full that, in 1993, the sheriff had to put up Korean War-era surplus tents in the searing desert to contain the overflow.

Nicknamed “Tent City,” this blazing hellhole is the personal territory of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed "toughest lawman in America.” Elected in 1992 on a populist ticket, Arpaio has won six elections and incurred numerous lawsuits. A US Army veteran and a former officer in the Drug Enforcement Agency for 33 years, Arpaio instituted male and female chain gangs in the mid-90s to stifle a growing crime rate. This unique figure is able to get away with chain gangs, Tent City and other abuses of inmates because he has a mandate from the people. Arpaio is a political boss with an 80 percent approval rating from the blue-haired demographic who keep voting him in.


Over the years I’d read much about Arpaio and the MCSO—possibly, not all of it accurate. Feeding inmates food so far past its sell-by date it was green; selling commissary items above the rate of inflation; setting up fake entrapments to get media attention; and boasting that the guard dogs are better fed than his inmates. "I have an open door policy with the media," claims Arpaio. "I have nothing to hide." It eventually took years of persistent negotiation (and some ass-kissing) to get the green light and be an inmate on Arpaio's chain gang.

I spent a few days at Towers Jail, one of the drab and functional housing units that serve the MCSO. Like the rest of the jail, it was horribly overcrowded. Built in 1982 to accommodate 360, it was bursting with 800 inmates.

When I arrived, one of the guards—a huge and greasy anthropoid – fixed me with a black-eyed stare and said, "I think he needs a haircut." It turned out that all "criminals" get their heads shaved on arrival—though only male ones; women are spared this degrading treatment.

I was arm-locked by a guard to a "pod”, which is the purposefully sterile name they use in place of “dormitory.” I noticed some graffiti scratched on the wall. "Doing time in this hole is a bloody kiss from a steel cunt."

There were two men exchanging furtive glances through the Plexiglas. "Stop doing that, you disgusting fags," shouted the guard. “You're a disgrace to humanity!" Tragedy and comedy were juxtaposed with terror and farce in Maricopa County.


Another guard goose-stepped down the corridor and snapped at a crowd of ruined-looking cons in pink handcuffs and horizontal black and white uniforms, before turning to me. "Reynolds, I think they like you," he smiled. "I think they wanna fuck you up the ass. What you think about that? You English guys like all that fag shit, am I right?"

I looked at the prisoners in the dormitories. Asleep on bunks, on benches playing cards, a few idlers sweating by the door, expecting an early release. Others squatted in the corners of this doleful place, plotting, gibbering and staring blankly ahead. They looked, in the most literal and profound sense, unfortunate.

In "Tent City,” up to 2,000 inmates live in temperatures of 125 degrees during the summertime. Inside the jail, the drab housing units are just as crowded, just as harsh. In this culture, rehabilitation is a foreign concept. Prisoners are routinely threatened and assaulted, and explicit or implicit challenges to their safety, wellbeing or health are up front and constant.

Some inmates were sent out in chain gangs to pick up the litter of the suburbs or bury the poor, homeless, dispossessed and nameless dead of America in unmarked graves. All inmates wear black and white striped uniforms. But there is pink underwear to soften things. Pink boxers, socks and thermal tops were introduced in 1995 after staff complained about $48,000 worth of missing boxer shorts. It turned out that former inmates had been selling them, for around $10 each, in the bars of Phoenix. They thought the new pink colour would be a deterrent. As a bonus indignity, all inmates are now transported to and from the jail in pink restraints.


Immune to feeling, the guards of Towers Jail strip you down and go to work on your ego with a set of pliers and a blowtorch. "To me," said a guard, "they're just douchebags. Criminals. They wouldn't be in here if they hadn't done anything wrong."

I remember one inmate—a scrawny, sallow specimen—framing the entrance to the shower of his pod. Apart from a pink face towel covering his groin and a pair of orange flip-flops on his feet, he was naked. "Enjoy your day out," he shouted out at the chain gang, "better than red death and cockroach tartare." Red death is the horrid hash the jail serves inmates as a treat. The men spoke about the lengths some prisoners go to for creature comforts. Inmates on work release routinely sneaked contraband into jail up their bum. This is known as “keistering”.

"A lot of cigarettes taste like shit," said an inmate, "because that's how they got 'em in—up the ass."

As well as no cigarettes, there's also no coffee, no pepper, no ketchup, no profanities and no porn. Here, inmates live on two meals a day, with no meat. What you do get is hard time, demeaning labour, severe haircuts, food green with mould, shakedowns and random drug tests conducted in the middle of the night by heavily armed, highly aggressive detention officers.

If an inmate requests medical attention they must pay for the privilege. If an inmate wants to write home, they do not get writing paper and an envelope—they get a postcard of Sheriff Joe Arpaio (apparently it brings a human face to the regime). All of this punishment, says the longstanding sheriff, is to dissuade anyone from committing crimes on his patch.


But does this policy work? Not really. The crime rates in Phoenix (414.8 per 100,000 people) are still higher than the US average (301.1 per 100,000 people, in 2012). America’s bloated jails are a warehouse of the poor and a revolving door to drunks and drug addicts. Have they considered that treating drinking and drug problems might help lower recidivism rates and reduce the numbers in overcrowded facilities? Not from what I could tell. It's ironic that a stint in rehab at the Betty Ford clinic is cheaper than doing time in any of these jails.

Change is slow. Reforming the corrections system is no vote winner, not even in a democracy as purportedly enlightened as America. Yet America is free enough to let me live in its jails and see their policy close up. It told me much about the effect of imprisonment, reoffenders and how to make money from both. At county jails, the local sheriff acts as an all-American entrepreneur. He gets a payment, per person, per day, and if they don't keep beds full they lose money. It's also in the interests of corporations to keep privatised jails full—overcrowded, like Tent City, even. The prison industry in the US is, after all, an $80 billion business.

Does this industry care about rehabilitation or revolving doors? Having been in some of the toughest jails in America, I think not.

Check out Alexander Reynolds' book on his time undercover in America's jails on Amazon.