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BREAKDOWN BEHIND BARS / Turbulent Times in L.A. County
Jails

Sheriff Houses Inmate Overflow in Tents

Justice: Arizona lawman has become folk hero. Critics raise issues of medical care, use of force.

May 20, 1996|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — "Hey Sheriff Joe, a little bit of coffee'd be nice," an inmate suggests.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio barely stops to answer. Bustling through a row of bunk beds in one of the notorious jail-tents he erected here, the man who describes himself as "America's toughest sheriff" tosses the inmate a look of part-confusion, part-disgust.

"Caw-fee?" he says, the word sounding foreign to him. End of discussion.

Grabbing the flap of the Army surplus tent, the sheriff exits the makeshift jail cell in favor of Arizona's bright morning sun. "I don't need to explain anything to them," he says.

Forget the Bastille. With jails in Los Angeles and dozens of other communities around the country facing unprecedented shortages of beds, Arpaio's "Tent City" solution has become a modern-day symbol of the "make 'em miserable" school of jailing.

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Inmates and civil libertarians loathe him. Some jailers around the country watch him with guarded fascination. And Arpaio himself soaks it all in like the desert heat, posting a mock "Vacancy" sign outside the facility and vowing to erect tents from Phoenix to Mexico if it means keeping criminals in jail.

"He's become something of a folk hero," said Jenny Gainsborough, public policy coordinator for the National Prison Project in Washington. "He makes all this noise about how he's tough on crime, and he's doing this for the honest God-fearing American taxpayer. . . . But it does very little to deter crime. It's a distraction."

Don't try telling Sheriff Joe.

A master of the sound bite who has just published an autobiography, Arpaio derides officials in Los Angeles and elsewhere for releasing prisoners before their sentences are up to stem overcrowding. And he scoffs at an approach to jailing that he believes has become commonplace: coddling inmates in the name of civil liberties and rehabilitation.

"Inmates run the jails," he said in a recent interview at the jail-tent complex he set up nearly three years ago. "Everybody says, 'aw, treat 'em nice.' But my attitude is: They're gonna hate this place so much they'll never come back. That's rehabilitation, isn't it?"

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In Phoenix, rehabilitation means:

As many as a thousand inmates sleep nightly in surplus tents, sweating out 110-degree temperatures during the summer and plugging holes with toothpaste during the rains. ("If our soldiers could survive in tents in Kuwait, why can't these guys?" Arpaio demands.)

The lunch bologna--part of a food expenditure that Arpaio grudgingly saw rise from 30 cents to 35 cents a day for each inmate--reputedly comes in an infamous shade of green. ("Even if it isn't," the sheriff says, "I want them to think it is.")

Coffee, cigarettes and some magazines are banned, and Arpaio began airing "Old Yeller" and "Lassie" on TV before doing away with the movies altogether and replacing them with such fare as a 10-part Newt Gingrich video series. ("Cruel and unusual punishment," he quips.)

Inmates are forced to wear pink underwear so they won't swipe them. ("They hate pink"); it's such a success the department began selling the items to the public--with Arpaio's name on them.

And inmates housed at the soon-to-be expanded tent complex, unlike the county's main facilities, get no recreational areas for basketball and the like. ("What do you need a rec area for? Exercise? They get their exercise by working on the chain gang and picking fruit.")

A handful of other communities around the country also have resorted to tent housing, but none with the numbers, fanfare, or bare-bones approach of Maricopa County.

The high profile has not come without a price. Critics from some corners of Phoenix's legal and political communities are stepping up their attacks on Arpaio, and the U.S. Justice Department has opened an ongoing civil rights investigation that reportedly centers on issues of medical care, use of force, and access to lawyers at the jails.

"You don't think I'm worried about it, do you?" Arpaio says of the probe. "I think we have the best-run jail in the country. . . . No one's died."

Indeed, even some of Arpaio's critics acknowledge his tremendous popularity among a public demanding a get-tough-on-crime approach.

"He's certainly wildly popular in the community," concedes Ted Jarvi, a Tempe lawyer who represents inmates. "People delight in hearing that [inmates] have lost more civil liberties. I've quit even discussing that issue. I'm just concerned about basic human needs."

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So were many of the inmates themselves one recent morning at the tent facility, as they besieged a visiting reporter with a slew of complaints about overcrowded conditions, rodents, hygiene and other problems that they say make the place unlivable.

Complained Lester Rees, a 24-year-old graffiti vandal from Mesa: "This is like the kind of prisons they had in the 18th century. Aren't we supposed to have advanced?"

But if Arpaio's intent is to discourage repeat visitors, it just might be working.

"I guarantee I won't do county time next time," one 21-year-old inmate said as he milled around his tent bunk. "I'll go straight to state prison."

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