We've all heard of the harsh conditions experienced by prisoners interned at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and other American outposts of cruelty and brutality—the ones supposedly justified by the urgency of the War on Terror.
However, if you're an American, you don't need to go to Iraq or Afghanistan to find your way to a vicious American-run prison system operated on principles of deliberate cruelty. And you don't need to travel to an outright dictatorship to experience life in an oppressive police state.
You need only head to Maricopa County, Arizona—and get arrested. This is trivially easy if you're not white, but it's not that hard even if you are: Just criticise the sheriff in public.
This is Sheriff Joe Arpaio, he of the pink punishment and curious media policies, who calls himself "America's Toughest Sheriff" and chases celebrity with a pathetic zeal that would be funny if it were less dangerous.
Maricopa County includes the city of Phoenix, more than nine thousand square miles of territory, and contains nearly four million people. Arpaio was elected sheriff in 1993, and made his mark early.
The voters had declined to finance new jail construction, and so, in 1993, Arpaio, vowing that no troublemakers would be released on his watch because of overcrowding, procured a consignment of Army-surplus tents and had them set up, surrounding by barbed wire, in an industrial area in southwest Phoenix. "I put them up next to the dump, the dog pound, the waste-disposal plant," he told me. Phoenix is an open-air blast furnace for much of the year. Temperatures inside the tents hit a hundred and thirty-five degrees.For the record, pretty much every aspect of the treatment of prisoners in Maricopa County would be prohibited under the Geneva Conventions if they were prisoners of war. America's recent record for treatment of prisoners of war is hardly exemplary, but at least people notice.
[From William Finnegan's "Sheriff Joe," in The New Yorker, July 20, 2009. Registry required for online access to full content.]
Other choice aspects of Arpaio's system:
• A neon sign reading VACANCY on a guard tower.
• Chain gangs. Including the world's first female chain gangs. And then juvenile chain gangs. Chain gangs.
• Deprivation as a simultaneous means of punishment and cost-cutting. Luxuries banned by Arpaio include: cigarettes, hot lunches, coffee, salt, and pepper. Meals were cut to only two a day, and the cost of those meals was reduced to thirty cents per meal. (He told William Finnegan that it cost more to feed the dogs than the inmates.)
• Black-and-white striped uniforms, "comically" old-fashioned, combined with pink underwear, pink flip-flops, socks, and pink handcuffs.
It's worth bearing in mind that this does not apply only to convicted criminals—anyone arrested and awaiting trial is still a part of this system. More on how easy it is to get arrested later.
So let's say you've been arrested in Maricopa County. You're half-starved, eating food that's unlikely even to be fit for the dogs to touch. You're wearing clothes intended to humiliate you, living in tents that are dangerously hot, working on a chain gang that's part labour, part contribution to a theatre of cruelty that rivals the Bloody Code of eighteenth-century Britain for its viciousness, without the Bloody Code's rarity of application or scope for mercy.
At least it can't get worse, right?
Wait, no, it totally can.
Because you could well find yourself Tasered and beaten while strapped into a "restraint chair" or held in solitary confinement. (If you have a strong stomach, check out the "Blood on Arpaio's Hands" section of arpaio.com, a site dedicated to trying to get him out of office.)
According to Finnegan's article, Maricopa County was sued nearly 2,200 times between 2004 and 2008. In that same period, the county jails of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston combined drew 43 lawsuits. Maricopa County has paid an estimated $43 million in compensation to victims and their families. The National Commission on Correction Health Care has withdrawn Maricopa County's accreditation, and a federal judge found that conditions are unconstitutional for pre-trial detainees.
But what of the officers who inflicted violent abuses on helpless prisoners?
Well, a lot of them have been promoted. Arpaio has never so much as hinted at regret.
Though this is only a light summary, I suspect you have an impression now of the unconscionably brutal and deliberately, overtly degrading treatment of Maricopa County's prisoners. So let's move on to that whole "police state" thing.
He has instigated raids on the homes of journalists who published stories critical of him. Citizens attending public meetings have been arrested for "disorderly conduct"—for clapping. Opposing Arpaio is risky: He has four thousand employees, and three thousand volunteer posse members.
It's still 2009, don't worry—I know this stuff seems like it should be from 1809 at the latest, but this is all very much now.
And where things get really into the more modern kind of neo-fascistic horror is Arpaio's crusade against—and I'm sure you can guess what the next words in this sentence will be—"illegal immigrants."
His deputies regularly raid Latino towns and communities. He and his officers claim thirty thousand arrests of undocumented immigrants, and proof of residency status must be shown to visit inmates at the prison. Arpaio, in collusion with the county attorney, has chosen to interpret a state law against human smuggling, intended to target the smugglers (known as coyotes) in an impressively creative way, indicting the coyotes' cargo as co-conspirators in smuggling themselves across the border. Which makes it a class 4 felony and the suspects ineligible for bond, thereby condemning them to Maricopa's dangerous and unhealthy prison system.
When Arpaio and his men come to town, anyone with brown skin is stopped and questioned on their immigration status, in what the sheriff's office calls "crime prevention" sweeps. Or they come through after midnight—even in towns like Mesa, where the mayor and police chief alike are profoundly opposed to such actions, and in Guadalupe, where the population is almost entirely Native American and Latino, but almost no-one is foreign-born, because it's an old, well-established town. The raid there mentioned in Finnegan's article found only nine undocumented immigrants, so instead the sheriff and his men issued traffic tickets, for charges including "improper use of horn."
I'll close my summary with another quotation from The New Yorker. The article alone contains a lot of things I have left out, including much of the fear he instills in individuals, but this will give you an idea of it:
The Guadalupe raid did have a chilling effect. It began the day before a Catholic-church confirmation ceremony—a big deal in Guadalupe—was scheduled to take place in the village plaza, and although the children had prepared for months, a number of them were afraid to come out, and missed their own confirmations.This is the modern America, where children are afraid to go to church, and pre-trial detainees are kept in prison conditions that would qualify as war crimes if used to hold prisoners of war.
America's toughest sheriff is, as ever, unapologetic. Over lunch in New York, he told me that he doesn't mind the effect he has. "If they're afraid to go to church, that's good."
But hey, Arpaio's got a book deal and he's been on Conan and the Colbert Report, so that makes him an American success story, right?