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What's really happening in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jail

By Michael Lockwood
web posted March 26, 2002

When asked their opinion of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, most critics dutifully repeat the tired old cliché - he is a publicity hound, and he has violated inmates' rights resulting in their deaths on occasion. Yet when asked to expound, most people cannot explain in legal terms how inmates' rights are being violated.

Sheriff Joe ArpaioThe truth is that only a very few inmates in Arpaio's jails have been seriously harmed while fighting law enforcement who were trying to restrain them. In fact, these numbers are comparable to numbers in other county jails around the country. Department of Justice statistics show that there are over 40 accident related inmate deaths per year in jails across the country. Furthermore, as Maricopa County's Risk Management pointed out, sheriffs are frequently the target of lawsuits, and the number of lawsuits against Arpaio is typical, as indicated by the fact that insurance premiums have not risen.

Unfortunately, there are people with different philosophical beliefs than Arpaio who would rather coddle prisoners by giving them Hustler magazine and cable television rather than take the necessary steps to discourage them from returning to their criminal behavior that landed them in jail. Even more shocking is the fact that in many jails and prisons rather than finding methods to discourage criminal behavior, our tax dollars are spent providing criminals with a means to obtain a college degree while in prison. Is it fair that inmates are rewarded for criminal acts while there are honest citizens in our society who cannot even afford to go to college and who are working two jobs to make ends meet?

Because Arpaio's critics have not been able to defeat him in the polls or find any wrongdoing, they resort to blatant distortions of the truth and falsely accuse Arpaio of lying. A favorite tactic used by them is to exploit incidents where inmates who resisted confinement got hurt, portraying them as innocent victims oppressed by the law.

The most frequently touted example of oppression in Arpaio's jail is the death of Scott Norberg, who died while resisting police officers. Norberg was arrested for chasing after two young girls in Mesa in order to kill them. High on methamphetamine, he attacked the police officers who were trying to restrain him, resulting in his death. Norberg's parents, who had disowned him years ago, filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office. Arpaio defended his officers' actions and wanted to go to trial, but the insurance company insisted on settling. The Justice Department and the FBI conducted an extensive investigation and came up with nothing. Yet this case is typical of those cited constantly by Arpaio's critics as evidence of abuse by the Sheriff's Office.

Arpaio's critics contend that the Sheriff's Office's choice of restraint methods are inhumane. However, as usual, these accusations are baloney. Organizations like Amnesty International decry the use of restraint chairs, since occasionally an inmate who insists on struggling hurts or kills himself in the process. However, even international standards, which are generally more prohibitive than U.S. laws addressing restraint methods, have approved restraint chairs as legitimate uses of restraint when strictly necessary.

Amnesty International also claims that the Office's use of stun guns is inhumane. However, they conveniently fail to point out that the stun guns were given to the Sheriff's Office by the Department of Justice in a grant program, and both the Department of Justice and the National Sheriff's Association approve of their use. Furthermore, the stun guns are only to be used by law enforcement in self-defense. It is ironic how these so-called compassionate critics say nothing when a guard uses a regular gun in self-defense, killing an attacking inmate, but scream injustice if a guard uses a stun gun in self-defense, briefly stunning the inmate. It's not too difficult to guess which weapon the inmates prefer used.

Arpaio's Office has been accused of cruelty for "hogtying" inmates, a method of restraint that puts the inmates in a painful position. However, hogtying is not allowed in Arpaio's Office. Of course, Arpaio's critics are so eager to accuse Arpaio of oppression that when another local police force in town brought over an inmate it had hogtied, Arpaio's critics took it as yet another opportunity to falsely accuse the Sheriff.

Vague accusations that the Sheriff's Office is "torturing" inmates are embarrassingly incorrect. Even Amnesty International has acknowledged that torture means causing an inmate an extreme level of pain which is repeated in a regular fashion or used for a particular purpose, such as extracting a confession. Torture simply does not include responding to and restraining violent inmates.

In response to accusations that his deputies were mistreating inmates, Arpaio installed webcams in the jail so the public could see for themselves. Detractors criticized his webcams as invasions of the right to privacy of pretrial detainees. Yet courts have consistently held that pretrial detainees have a lesser degree of privacy than regular citizens. Pretrial detainees have limited rights, similar to convicted criminals. Funny how these same critics are silent regarding TV police shows that frequently show the faces of people being arrested, and newspaper articles that print the photographs of suspects.

These critics would prefer to have a Pre-Trial Services Agency similar to the one in Pima County, which assesses "risk" levels of arrestees and releases many of them based on this analysis, instead of detaining them overnight. Because Arpaio's Office decides not to immediately release many of the suspects it arrests, the Sheriff's Office is labeled "cruel." But to many members of the public, and to law enforcement, there is a legitimate concern that immediately releasing a man who has violently (but for the first time!) beat up his wife might not be the wisest choice, especially considering he may still be high on drugs. Perhaps it would be safer for the public and his wife to have him sit overnight in jail and cool off.

So far the courts have generally agreed with Arpaio that he has not violated any inmates rights. The Supreme Court agreed with him that inmates do not have a right to pornography. So maybe Arpaio's critics would be better off protesting the real inhumane treatment of prisoners in other parts of the world. According to Amnesty International's own information, in several countries many pretrial detainees are held for long periods of time before being released. In Venezuela recently, 1,531 unsentenced inmates were held for more than three years in confinement. Inmate deaths are also much worse in other countries. Ten percent of inmates in two Burundi prisons died during the first four months of 1998.

Accusations that Arpaio is a publicity hound are misplaced. Arpaio generates publicity because he implements innovative programs that save taxpayers money and deter criminal behavior. If he was a passive sheriff who simply coddled inmates and gave them their cable television and pornography, so there weren't any complaints, he wouldn't make news. And why should the inmates be entitled to free cable, when there are honest citizens who cannot afford cable? The media's accusations that he seeks out publicity are ironic, considering it is the media who is always calling Arpaio, not the other way around.

Arpaio's critics ignore or downplay the good he has done. His drug prevention and treatment program has been a success; a recidivism study found that only eight to ten percent of the 2000 men and women who graduated from it have returned, vastly better than the nation's 60-70 per cent recidivism rate. He started the only high school in the nation for inmates.

He has saved taxpayers millions. His volunteer posse of 3200 is the biggest in the nation and saves taxpayers the cost of paying deputies, costing nothing except for training posse members. Arpaio expanded the posse's duties from typical search and rescue work to rounding up deadbeat parents and rescuing abused animals. He began sheltering abused animals at his jail while their owners awaited trial, and has his female inmates caring for the animals. In 2000, United Animal Nations, a national animal advocacy group, awarded its Animals' Choice Award to Arpaio for his efforts to stop animal cruelty. He has started parenting programs for inmates. His Friday night "smart tents" are available for teachers, parents, and kids to come sleep in overnight to see what being locked up in jail is all about. Children get to see firsthand what it is like to be handcuffed and locked up. The inmates tell them about the dangers of committing crimes.

Inmate meals cost 22 cents each, the cheapest in the nation, and are served only twice a day. Most other jails spend $4-5 dollars per day on inmate meals. His detractors claim that Arpaio's figure is exaggerated, and that the actual cost is closer to $1.49 per meal, but they have sneakily reached this figure by including hidden costs like transportation and electricity. His tents cost taxpayers $100,000, a fraction of the $70 million it would have cost to build another jail. His detractors complain that putting inmates in hot tents (which contain swamp coolers) is inhumane, but the inmates say it beats living in one room with 100 other men. When inmates smuggled out 50,000 pairs of underwear, a loss of $40,000 a year, he began providing them with pink underwear to prevent future theft. Sales of the now popular pink underwear have helped pay for costs associated with the posse.

Arpaio's chain gangs are voluntary for the inmates, and save taxpayers money by having the inmates perform work for the county instead of paying regular workers. Contrary to criticism that the chain gang is inhumane, inmates surveyed have said they like working on the chain gang because it gets them outside and gives them something to do. Arpaio's female chain gang is the only female chain gang in the nation. Every Thursday Arpaio lets women volunteer for gravesite duty, which involves digging graves and burying indigents who have died. As the women hear how the indigents died, of drug abuse or other various sad situations, it makes an impact on them. Some of them even pray. The female inmates also paint curbs, remove graffiti, and pick up litter, saving taxpayers upwards of $500,000 over three years.

Critics of Arpaio claim that his tough tactics are not working. Yet the only evidence they can point to that supports this is an Arizona State University study that was improperly conducted. Another tactic frequently used by Arpaio's opponents to discredit him is to find partisan opponents working within his administration, or disgruntled former employees, who have their own agendas and are eager to say whatever it takes to destroy Arpaio's credibility. This is not unusual; within any governmental agency there are going to be naysayers willing to criticize the guy at the top. And for every ex-posse member discovered who complains that the posse is unorganized or costs more than Arpaio says it does, there are twenty posse members who refute the accusations. But hey, for people who have already made up their mind about Arpaio, it's best not to let the facts get in the way of their opinion.

Whatever happened to outrage over crime? It is being replaced with political correctness guised under the important sounding and widely misused mantra of "rights." But the plain fact is, clever word plays don't help the politically correct when their life is being threatened by one of society's degenerates: just like the rest of us, they call the police to defend their rights, not the ACLU to defend their attacker's rights.

This is Michael Lockwood's first contribution to Enter Stage Right.

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