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Joe Arpaio likes to call himself “America´s toughest sheriff”, and he rules Phoenix, Arizona, with a medieval sense of vengeance. A visit with Arpaio at his notorious Tent City jail.




The road leading toward Sheriff Joe Arpaios Tent City runs through a suitably grim neighborhood on the southwestern border of Phoenix: naked storage houses, empty lots, and junkyards line the street, plastic wrappers and newspaper pages caught in barbed wire flutter frantically in the wind. Just a few miles before 27th Avenue bumps into the South Mountains, Durango Street crosses, and a few feet to the right, Estrella Jail complex looms. It contains the Juvenile Detention Center, a section where unsentenced suspects await their trials, and the notorious Tent City: the jail of tents in the midst of the Arizona desert.


The way inside leads through a double steel lock. It leads into a concrete labyrinth. A young detention officer in a tan uniform leads the way through the corridors to the women´s day room: a vast, tiled hall with bolted down tables and chairs and the coziness of a launderette. On the far end, the exit to the yard – the tents, where currently 1805 inmates do time. 310 of them are women.


Surrounded by 12-foot wire fences, the inmates sloop on their narrow bunks, reading, talking, dozing - 20 or 40 to a tent. Shampoo bottles, dog-eared books and other small possessions are tucked between the mattresses and steel frames of empty bunkbeds. A charity event has drawn a number of volunteers to the adjacent yard, where a local hairdresser cuts the women´s hair to make wigs for cancer-kids in Florida. Just behind the makeshift hair salon, that has been improvised under a tent´s tarpaulin, the fence of the men´s ward rises into the blue sky. Happy for the distraction, the guys are watching the event from their bunks.


In the middle of the hair cutting yard stands a short elderly man. He wears slacks, a jacket and a tie that sports a small golden gun. Next to him, a woman in striped prisoner´s clothes. This is the man who invented all this, who proudly refers to himself as “America´s toughest sheriff”, whose popularity amongst the people of his county is remarkable: Joe Arpaio.


“Want an autograph? Here ya go”, he tells the woman. Sheriff Joe pulls a pen from his jacket and scribbles his signature onto the face of a post card. Within the panning range of a cameraman recording the cancer kids event for a local TV-station, Arpaio flaunts the great gestures of a star. The woman in stripes sheepishly thanks him and trudges off in her pink socks and fainted red plastic sandals. Arpaio turns around and explains: “Inmates who want to write home, have to do it on these postcards. I´m on all of them. And I autograph most.”


The postcard features Arpaio, hands on his hips and a revolver in his belt, next to a sheepish giant in pink boxers. Between them stands a sign reading: “Tent City today: hard work, crew cuts, 35 cent meals, educational TV, pink underwear, 135 degrees. No coffee, no cigarettes, no movies, no girlie magazines. If you don’t wanna do the time, don´t do the crime.”


The postcard is not a joke. Arpaios makes his jail inmates wear pink undies, since six years ago a couple of delinquents were caught trying to smuggle out the stencilled white jail underwear. “Why pink? Cause they hate pink! Why would I give them something they like?” The sheriff makes a point out of making the inmates´ lives as miserable as possible. They should never want to return.


Tent City inmates receive only two meals a day. Flaccid baloney sandwiches, a pack of crackers, a plum and a small carton of milk in the morning, stew and potatoes at night. Television is limited to political programs and the weather channel, cigarettes and coffee are banned, as are men´s magazines. Male inmates are required to shave daily and cut their hair so the ears and neckline are visible. For women, braids or ponytails are a must. Rough language and cusswords are not tolerated, detention offiers are to be addressed as “Ma´am” and “Sir”. Inmates are required to stay in their tents, the air conditioned day room is to be approached on the shortest possible way. Mouthing off or misbehaving toward a detention officer will put you on water and “bread”, a gooey substance of basic nutritional value. And anyone breaching the rules invites restrictions for his or her whole tent. Serious infringements as fights or cigarette-smuggling will lead directly to lockdown – a 23-hour-a-day confinement to a tiny cell of four, that can last from typically thirty days through your entire sentence.


„I suppose you serve your prisoners in Germany steak and pizza with anchovies“, Arpaio snaps, „I´ve heard as much. Well, my jail is no country club. See that sign over there?” He points to a Motel-sign erected in the middle of the yard: “Vacancy”, the neon tube signals – we always have room for more.


Sheriff Joes motel is quite uncomfortable. To relieve themselves from the singing heat – today´s 95 degrees are almost cool for an October day – all the inmates can do is roll up the tent flaps. Even if that invites a sharp stench: Tent City is located by a landfill, therefore, the land upon which the jail was erected was free. Arpaio invested a mere 12000 dollars for this jail, “cause I was nice enough to install electricity.”


He suddenly looks up with a worried expression. “Is the sun too much for you?” But this is no display of gentleman manners. Arpaio carefully chose his spot in the middle of the sun-beat yard, to make his guest feel the relentless heat. He likes to sell his jail rougher than it already is. “In the summer, we have 135 degrees here, and probably more than that in the tents.” In reality, Phoenix had a record temperature of 117 this year. 


The inmates surprisingly find the tents less appalling than shocked critics from the outside. At least, so they claim, within hearing range of the detention officers. David, 23, a small, sinewy Hispanic, handselected for an interview by a grim young officer, says: “I like it out here. It gives you the feeling of more freedom, and you´re out in the open. It does get hot in the summer, but I´m in construction and I´m used to that.” David is in Tent City for violating the probation he got for assault. His sentence is eight months.


A few feet further, Maureen, 36 and incarcerated for driving under the influence of marijuana, takes off her hairdressing gown. She feels that “anything´s better than being locked in a cell with half a dozen people.” And Jamie, 27, another probations violator, says: “I don´t know if they told you, but we have the air conditioned day room, and they give us cold water. The only really hard thing is the two meals a day.”


Tent City does have an overpriced jail commissary, where the inmates can order candy, hamburgers or cosmetic products. But until recently, this was only possible after a fee of thirty dollars had been payed to the jail. Arpaio has been charging his inmates a dollar a day for “room and board”. Arpaio says: “I suppose you have to pay for your own rent and food. Huh? Well, why should the taxpayers come up for the criminals?”


But a month ago, he had to stop this policy. “Well, it is kind of a rip-off”, he says, smoothly turning 180 degrees, “since we pay less than 40 cents a day for the meals. It´s not fair to make those 60 cents profit.”


Various inmates have sued Arpaio, feeling that he infringed on their rights. Some took their cases all the way to the Supreme Court. “When I took away the porno”, Arpaio says, “they went all the way – won that case. When I took away the coffee, they went all the way – won that case.” The FBI, the Federal Justice Department and Amnesty International have conducted investigations against Arpaio and his tents. No one could stop him yet.


„Won that case“, Arpaio booms, as if he were swinging a sledgehammer.It sounds like the dry triumph of the righteous hero in an old black-and white-Western. But even Phoenix in the gunslinging heartland of the American southwest, is almost 140 years old today. And Joseph M. Arpaio was born and raised in Massachussetts. He speaks with a heavy New England accent and is only second-generation American, the son of Italian immigrants. “Legal immigrants”, he underlines. His mother died at his birth, and little Joe, splitting his childhood between “various Italian families” and his father´s grocery store, decided to become a cop when he was just a kid.


After high school he entered the military service and then embarked on a career as a drug cop, that led him from the streets of Washington and Chicago to undercover operations in Turkey and Mexico. After 27 years with the US Drug Enforcement Administration DEA, Arpaio quit his cop job and joined his wife´s travel agency in 1982. Obviously, this was far from fulfilling: In 1992 he made a spectacular comeback in law enforcement by running for sheriff and winning the job. He is currently serving his third term, and will run for a fourth in September 2004.


But the toughly Italo-American is a far cry from the sadistic monster, that some see in him – or from the modern John Wayne, that he would obviously like to embody. Arpaio is just a slightly eccentric elderly gentleman, whose plain pragmatism saves him from considering the complexity of life. He makes things easy for himself by taking his job literally: law enforcement.


Joe Arpaio likes to govern Maricopa county, at 3.2 million residents the third largest sheriff´s district after Los Angeles and Chicago´s Cook county, like an old-fashioned autocrat. “I report to no one”, he says matter-of-factly. “Not to a governor, not to any politician. You know that song by Frank Sinatra? ,I Did it My Way´. It´s my favorite song. I have no boss, I do exactly what I want to do. And if the people don´t like it, well, then it´s time for me to go.”

But they like it. Up to 80 percent of Maricopa county´s voters support Arpaio, because he reduces the crime problem to a simplistic system: you break the law, you pay for it. Sheriff Joe makes the impression as if he´s got it all under control. But he has only managed it out of sight. 


Tent City is crowded by non-violent offenders serving one year or less. Thanks to an incarceration-happy judicial system with mandatory sentencing and minimum terms, conservative Arizona has an inmate rate which grows seven times as fast as the state´s population. “Drug addicts, drunken drivers and probation offenders are crowding our prisons”, the daily newspaper “Arizona Republic” recently lamented. The paper also cited criminal justice professor John Hepburn from Arizona State University: “We lock up more and more people, with less and less rehabilitation programs to offer.”


Tent City does offer a successfull anti-drug program named Alpha, and it boasts the U.S.´s only in-jail high school. There are parenting programs and reading sessions recorded for the inmates´kids at home. But at the end of an inmate´s sentence, Arpaios jail simply spits him or her out on the street.


Jamie says: “In here, many of us feel strangely secure, cause we don´t have to hustle the streets and all, to score drugs or whatever. But when it´s time to go home, some people are almost afraid.”


Sheriff Joe couldn´t care less. He likes to stress that his jails contain over 3500 people more than there is room for. “People constantly tell me that their jails aren´t so crowded. Know what I tell ´em? Cause you don´t catch the criminals! I´m only doing my job here. And I do it right.”


Last year Joe Arpaio was among the most popular candidates for the office of Governor. But he decided not to run. “I´m a fighter at the front”, he says. “This is where I belong, and this is where I´m staying.” In June the tough Sheriff turned 71.



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