Sheriff Joe Takes Great Pride in His Jail's Lean-and-Mean Reputation


Cigarettes? No. Recreation programs? No. Coffee? No. Hot lunch? Forget about it.

The inmates in Maricopa County jails complain, and Sheriff Joseph Arpaio is delighted. He's running for reelection after four years devoted to making jails meaner--and bragging about it.

In a crime-obsessed society that tends to believe that criminals are coddled, Arpaio, a 63-year-old Republican, is the poster boy for citizens who want prisoners punished, not rehabilitated. And for Arizonans who want to make the streets safer, the sheriff has sworn hundreds of volunteers into posses to fight prostitution, graffiti, even drug dealing.

He's started chain gangs, and he bunks inmates in patched-up Army tents. He's banned Playboy. He's taken commercial television out of some jails and substituted such crowd-pleasing fare as C-SPAN and the Weather Channel.

"Why the Weather Channel? The chain gang ought to know if it's going to be 120 degrees."

Arpaio replaced hot lunches with cold sandwiches. When inmates protested that the bologna was green at the edges, Arpaio couldn't have been happier. He made sure reporters heard about it.

He's brought the cost of jail meals down to as low as 30 cents each, crowing that other jails spend up to $2. His tightwad menus draw laughter and applause from the civic groups that he appears before almost daily.

The sheriff figures that he saved $100,000 a year just by cutting out coffee. "I have to pay for my coffee. Why should they have coffee free?"

For his anti-inmate efforts, Arpaio has drawn international publicity. ("You didn't see the Penthouse article? It's the best one I have.") Statewide polls show that he's Arizona's most popular elected official.

Inmates wear pink underwear, dyed that color at the sheriff's direction after he learned that work-release crews were selling briefs stamped "MCSO" (Maricopa County Sheriff's Office) on the street. One year, the sheriff says, the county lost $48,000 in underwear. "I had to do something, so I dyed them pink. No one wants to wear pink underwear."

Arpaio's fans loved the notion, so he began autographing pink briefs and selling them for $10 each, with proceeds going to cover the posses' expenses. At Christmas, he was in malls, signing his name for shoppers who waited patiently to meet him. "Stay out of trouble," he'd write across the fabric. "Sheriff Joe."

With his dumpling face under slicked hair, Arpaio is recognized everywhere. At a stoplight in Phoenix, construction crews wave and shout: "Sheriff Joe! Good work!" He used to ride in parades, he says, and hear applause. "Now, it's screaming."

No matter that the county crime rate isn't falling. "They're not going to live better in jail than they do on the outside," Arpaio says.

The rhetoric makes critics groan. "Anyone who thinks prisons and jails are country clubs, you go live there for a while," says Louis Rhodes, head of the Arizona American Civil Liberties Union.

Apparently, no inmates have gone to court over bologna sandwiches or smoking bans. "Coffee is not a constitutional issue," Rhodes says.

"Legally, you have to go pretty far before the courts say [treatment of prisoners] is damaging," says Jenni Gainsborough of the ACLU's National Prison Project. "You've got to treat a prisoner pretty harshly before it's cruel and unusual punishment."

Arpaio says he knows how far he can go. He presides over county jails, filled with inmates awaiting trial and convicts serving terms of less than a year for crimes such as assault, forgery and prostitution. Longer sentences are served at state prisons.

Onto the city streets and county roads Arpaio has sent his posses--the very crime-fighting bands, authorized under state law, that used to look for cattle rustlers and horse thieves in the Old West. In Maricopa County today, the posses hunt down deadbeat parents, patrol malls at Christmas and patrol against prostitution.

They're all volunteers who undergo 130 hours of crime-fighting classes. "Volunteerism at its best," the sheriff says, counting Arizona's governor, Phoenix's mayor, lawyers, accountants and the elderly among his 2,500 sworn posse members. Eight hundred members have bought their own guns and uniforms.

At Phoenix's Estrella Jail, Arpaio shows off the olive-drab tents, some replete with holes, that house 1,000 work-release inmates.

The tents, some World War II and Korean War vintage, leak during rainstorms. "I could care less," he says. Above the jail, on a light tower, is a neon sign the sheriff installed. It reads: "Vacancy."

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