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As He Runs for a 4th Term, 'Toughest' Sheriff Is Ever Inventive

Joe Arpaio doesn't mind the critics. He keeps inmates in the Arizona heat while dogs take cooled cells. His latest idea is a Web 'jail cam.'

August 23, 2000|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — He likes to be called Sheriff Joe, "America's toughest sheriff."

But some folks here in Maricopa County--Arizona's most populous--think Joe Arpaio's just plain mean.

Since taking office seven years ago, he's blended a penchant for cost-cutting with a hard-line attitude toward the people accused of crimes in his territory.

He feeds prisoners aging, surplus food. He clothes them in black-and-white-striped uniforms with pink underwear (which he also autographs and sells). He's reinstituted chain gangs for male prisoners and started one for women. And he houses detainees in military tents.

Recently, the sheriff reopened a jail that had been closed by plumbing problems so dogs and cats from animal abuse cases could be put in the air-conditioned cells. And Arpaio has instituted a bread-and-water diet for misbehaving prisoners.

His latest innovation? To scattered applause--and threats of legal action--Arpaio has introduced "jail cam." The Web site, the first of its kind, focuses on life behind bars at the nation's fourth-largest jail.

Arpaio, 68, calls himself uncompromising and says he won't coddle criminals.

Others claim the sheriff is bent on humiliating everyone in his charge. His recent policies, they say, are simply more self-aggrandizing antics during this, his third reelection campaign. He is expected to win easily.

That Arpaio is unconventional is indisputable. How his controversial ideas percolate is undefinable. "When I decide to do something, I do it within a week," he says. "I don't have committees, I don't run it by lawyers and all that garbage. I just do it."

The jail cam has elicited the loudest cries from Arpaio's critics. As drama, the herky-jerky images are less than captivating: A suspect being routinely booked fills one screen, a suspect being quietly searched is available on another. And while there is the potential to view a psychotic detainee being wrestled into a restraint chair, those who log on are usually treated to the grainy sight of empty corridors.

Still, such was the interest in the Madison Street Jail Web site that its first day drew 3 million visitors, causing its Internet server to crash. The site now claims an average of 2.5 million visitors a day.

Arpaio says that giving would-be criminals a Web preview of the grim conditions inside the county lockup will serve as a deterrent.

And, he explains, the peeks into cells serve another social function: an updated version of being placed in the stocks in the town square.

"I like to think that the 'johns' we arrest in prostitution busts will be able to wave to their wives: 'Hi,honey. I'm in jail,' " Arpaio says with some relish.

The jail cam has been attacked as an unnecessary humiliation of people who, in most cases, have not even been charged with a crime. The county's jails are filled with those awaiting trial and those convicted of petty crimes requiring terms of less than a year.

The American Civil Liberties Union is considering legal action against the sheriff.

Arpaio's correctional concept "seems to bypass the niceties of presumption of innocence until proven guilty," says Eleanor Eisenberg, president of the ACLU's Arizona chapter. "We think this is clearly punishment by humiliation. The exposure to someone who has been arrested can have a profound impact on their lives. I question whether the sheriff really thought this one through."

Arpaio and the ACLU have tangled often--most recently a few weeks ago when the sheriff introduced what he called a bread-and-water diet for troublemakers. The disciplinary action is meant for inmates who throw food, feces and urine at guards, which is a felony in Arizona. Arpaio says there were 180 such incidents last year.

Under the program, any assault will draw a seven-day diet of the "nutritionally enhanced bread." The 5-ounce loaf is served twice a day on a piece of paper, eliminating the need for plates or utensils, which inmates also have hurled at guards. Inmates may drink water out of the spigots in the cell.

Each small loaf contains 1,500 calories and is made from shredded potatoes, carrots, meat, dried beans and other items. Inmates, not surprisingly, have complained that the diet is unappealing.

The move from three squares to two rectangles a day has drawn the ire of civil-rights groups, which already had criticized Arpaio's "green bologna" policy of buying surplus food for the inmates that is healthful but aesthetically unappealing. Likewise, his menu offering of ostrich casserole, after a local farm donated 40 of the animals, was not well-received.

The jail does not serve coffee to inmates, a decision Arpaio says saved the taxpayers $100,000 a year. In fact, the sheriff's culinary penny-pinching has helped him reduce the cost of feeding about 7,000 detainees to 66 cents apiece each day.

That figure became an issue when the sheriff started putting dogs and cats into air-conditioned cells. About 1,400 prisoners, meanwhile, sweat out Arizona's blistering summer in Arpaio's uncooled tent city.

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