Rants & Essays

Treated Like Criminals

By Sheriff Joe Arpaio with Len Sherman

When I became sheriff in 1993, the jail system in Mari-copa County, Arizona, was des-perately overcrowded. The jails were constructed to hold 3000 prisoners, while more than 5000 were actually incarcerated. Such crammed conditions bred stress and anger and, inevitably, violence. Prisoners were fighting one another as well as guards, and both prisoners and guards were constantly being injured.

Though we needed more jail cells, there was no money to build them. In fact, the Board of Supervisors was cut-ting millions of dollars from the sher-iff's office.

But neither budget problems nor jail overcrowding prompted the idea I hit upon. Instead, my motivations were simple: I wanted to put more people in jail while spending as little of the taxpayers' money as possible.

At that time, the military was downsizing and discarding obsolete equipment. I contacted the Army and asked if they had any extra tents. The Army was happy to give us whatever they had available, at no cost. Some tents had holes or were fraying at the seams. But they had survived the Persian Gulf War, and they were still serviceable.

The tents were the key ingredi-ent in my plan. All we had to do was pour the concrete foundations for them, build fences, and install electricity and plumbing for bath-room, kitchen and medical facilities.

The tents soon held 1000 con-victs. A handful of critics scoffed, saying that the tents wouldn't work, that they were dangerous for inmates and detention officers, that they were backward and ridiculous. But the critics didn't know what they were talking about.

The accusation that housing pris-oners in tents in the desert consti-tuted cruel and unusual punishment was ludicrous. Here's the short answer: if our Desert Storm troops could live in tents in the Saudi desert for months while serving their coun-try, then why weren't the tents good enough for convicts? And let's not forget that living in tents was the least of our soldiers' concerns.

And so what if the tents were less than pleasant? The very least we can ask of criminals is to sacri-fice a little for the taxpayers. A new maximum-security jail proposed for Maricopa County is expected to cost roughly $220 million. The first tent city I erected cost just under $120,000.

Now, the tents aren't a blanket solution. Tents in Minnesota wouldn't work too well in the dead of winter. And serial killers and other incorri-gible, vicious animals shouldn't be kept in tents of any kind. In fact when someone causes enough trouble and additional punishment is due we take that person out of the tents and place him in solitary confine-ment in a hard facility.

While tents won't always work, they certainly can work often and in many locales. And from all the interest displayed by cities and coun-ties calling my office and visiting, I am sure you will be seeing tent-citv jails springing up in many states.

My philosophy is summed up in a line I constantly repeat: Inmates should never live better in jail than on the outside. It's that simple.

Jail should be a place nobody ever wants to return to. That doesn't mean inmates should be treated cru-elly or inhumanely. Such behavior is not only ethically and legally unac-ceptable, but it also isn't productive from an institutional viewpoint. Indeed, arbitrary or barbaric man-agement merely renders any jail more violent, unruly and dangerous for both inmates and guards. Jail should be uncomfortable, not unsafe. Thus, the key concepts underlying my modus operandi are discipline, hard work and a total absence of frills.

We start with the prohibitions I instituted: No smoking. No adult magazines. No coffee. No violent TV shows. No NC-17, R or PG movies.

The prisoners don't like it. Every time I visit the tents, I hear the same thing: Why can't we have coffee? Why can't we have cigarettes? My answer is always the same: because you're in jail!

It may be hard to believe, but many inmates cannot seem to grasp that some of the rights and privileges they enjoy on the outside are forfeited the moment they are incarcerated. For too many inmates, jail is simply a way station, even a respite, between crimi-nal destinations. One day they might be in a crack house, another day break-ing into someone's home, another in custody, another back on the streets- round and round they go. Do you think they fear jail? Do you think they pause before hitting a little old lady over the head to steal her bag and say to themselves, Gee, maybe I shouldn't do this because if I'm caught I'll have to go back to that terrible place?

Of course not.

Instead they say, Hey, being locked up wasn't so bad. I did pretty much anything I wanted. I could buy ciga-rettes in the commissary, the food was better than I was used to, and I got to sit around all day watching TV.

So I'm working to make our jails tougher and better.

Inmates were smuggling drugs and other contraband in their long hair, so everyone got a haircut done by other inmates, which both saved money on professional barbers and provided vocational training.

In the Maricopa County system, we run our food service as efficiently as possible, and have tried some things nobody had done before. For exam-ple, many local farmers donate part of their crops for our use. Thus, we take inmates out to the fields to pick vegetables. The farmers can write off what is taken as tax-deductible con-tributions. Through such measures we have cut the average cost of a meal by more than half. We serve 25,000 meals every day, with each monthly menu approved by a county nutritionist. And we have 300 inmates working in our kitchens, learning to handle food and cook.

I regularly visit my jails, talking to the prisoners and listening to their gripes. One fellow complained about being deprived of the pleas-ures he was accustomed to, assert-ing, "We should have the same rights as people on the outside." Now that's an interesting concept-it pretty much eliminates the whole point of jail.

On the heels of that, another inmate chipped in, "Yeah, we didn't ask to be here."

Perhaps the summit of laughable arrogance was one man's complaint: "We are treated like criminals!"

Wow. Consider the mind of some-body who thinks like that. Con-sider how they regard truth and reality and right and wrong-in par-ticular, your rights and their wrongs.

So, I say, save the ones you can save. Help the ones you can help. Control the rest. Get the job done, within the bounds of ethics and law.

That might sound harsh to you, but jail should be a harsh place. Jail is not a reward or an achievement. It is punishment.