It all started with the pink underwear.
As the world leader in incarceration, by percentage and expense, America knew something was up when Joe Arpaio, the self-anointed “Toughest Sheriff in America,” introduced the country to his inmates’ pinkish undergarments. That was years ago. Since then Sheriff Arpaio’s crusade to make his jail a self-described “concentration camp” has had its ups and downs.
Whether the discussion includes Sheriff Joe or not, incarceration itself is a controversial topic. Is it punishment or rehabilitation? Should doing time guarantee an inmates’ right to lift weights, watch TV and read Playboy or instead be a simple mix of educational pursuits and physical labor?
Depending on whom you ask, the answer is Yes. And No.
At least we know which side Sheriff Joe occupies. His jail in Maricopa County is a large, uncooled tent. The temperature can reach 145 degrees Fahrenheit in the summertime, which is not a cozy place to bunk in one’s pink undies after a day on Sheriff Joe’s chain gang. The ACLU has taken notice, filing a lawsuit on the inmate’s behalf.
There is a broad appeal to the Maricopa County model. Arpaio’s methods are, if nothing else, a cheap comparison to the going rate for a year in jail (the 2011 prison average is just over $28,000). The cramped, hot quarters, cheap meals and hard work are a throwback to yesteryear, which could be defined as the time when people made decisions without the constant fear of civil litigation.
Sheriff Joe’s explanation was typically less sanguine: “It’s 120 degrees in Iraq and the soldiers are living in tents, have to wear full body armor, and they didn’t commit any crimes, so shut your mouths.”
After twenty years, however, Arpaio’s cult of personality is losing its appeal. In addition to the ubiquitous lawsuits brought by the ACLU, now comes a civil action brought by the U.S. Department of Justice (Trib 5/11). Ironically, the DOJ’s reference to Arpaio’s “abuse of power” and failure to adhere to the Constitution have nothing to do with Maricopa County jail conditions. Instead it is based on federal findings that Arpaio’s deputies routinely profile Latino motorists with random traffic stops.
Rarely mentioned is this disturbing fact: Many of the inmates housed in Arpaio’s tent city are not convicts serving a sentence but rather arrestees awaiting trial. From that perspective the harsh conditions that underpin Arpaio’s methods might conflict with our own court system’s inherent presumption of innocence for the accused.
In other words, Sheriff Joe may have gone too far. But let’s not be too hasty in dismissing the pink undies, at least not yet.
Jail is one thing. This type of correctional housing, run by municipal or county governments, is the roadside motel of the penal system. Jails serve as temporary housing for arrestees awaiting trial or for convicts serving less than a 365-day sentence. They serve these sentences in clustered housing, with lots of stacked bunk beds and little opportunity to exercise or walk freely.
Prison is another thing. Correctional facilities run by state and the federal government are set up as long-term living quarters, often with two-man cells, large dining facilities and in-and outdoor recreational areas. These expensive facilities literally suck the money out of our tax-paying pockets.
The prison system is in need of the retro reform that made Sheriff Arpaio a household name. With due consideration for humane conditions – of which 145 degrees Fahrenheit is certainly not – a “tent city prison” is a workable idea.
Take, for example, the Federal Detention Center situated just south of Seattle in a tall, boxy (and costly) structure adjacent to Highway 99. What might be the fiscal impact if it were traded in for a large tent in a remote corner of our state with sufficient acreage for inmates to grow crops and keep livestock? Would there be an improvement to the recidivism rate if the only way out of manual labor was measurable progress in an inmate’s educational goals?
More importantly, what would the litigation-prone ACLU think?
Regardless of one’s view on Sheriff Arpaio (not that Joe Arpaio’s ego requires our approval), his changes to the incarceration model are a version of reform. A jail system that moves in the direction of self-sufficiency is one that can not be ignored.
Once the lawsuits are finished, hopefully there will be something left to work with in the ashes.