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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Comin' Atcha, Sheriff Joe

Pink Underwear
Pink pants for the Sheriff's inmates
[Update 2013/05/25: In light of the recent ruling (Judge rules against 'America's toughest sheriff' in racial profiling lawsuit,) I thought I'd percolate this post from four years ago (February 13, 2009) up to the top. Incidentally, while he is "toughest" on those placed under his care, there is nothing tough about this cowardly bully.]

[Update 2011/09/21: Some questions and elaborations on my Tent City experience at Rogue Columnist's place.]

Looks like the House Judiciary Committee is going to have a look-see at the goings on here in Arizona:
Sheriff Arpaio has repeatedly demonstrated disregard for the rights of Hispanics in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Under the guise of immigration enforcement, his staff has conducted raids in residential neighborhoods in a manner condemned by the community as racial profiling. On February 4, 2009, Arpaio invited the media to view the transfer of immigrant detainees to a segregated area of his "tent city" jail, subjecting the detainees to public display and "ritual humiliation." Persistent actions such as these have resulted in numerous lawsuits; while Arpaio spends time and energy on publicity and his reality television show, "Smile… You’re Under Arrest!", Maricopa County has paid millions of dollars in settlements involving dead or injured inmates.
I am not proud to say that I am an alumnus of his "Tent City," but I do have a certain amount of pride in this piece which was published a month after I was discharged (on the front page of the Sunday "Opinions" section):
Sunday, January 1, 1995

'Tent City': Third World ambience in Arizona
By Michael J. Petro

Special for The Arizona Republic

On Nov. 28th, I completed a 30-day, mandatory minimum sentence for a DUI conviction at Joe Arpaio's "In Tents Unit" at Estrella Jail. I was permitted work release five days a week, which means that I was allowed to leave at 7 a.m. and return at 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, but had to remain inside over the weekends.

Being under no outside supervision, I was able to go home in the mornings to shower and breakfast before work and to return for dinner before going back in. Most of the working "Tent City" inmates are in work-furlough programs, however, which impose outside supervision by probation officers. These folks are permitted to travel only to and from work and jail, with lunch allowed "in the vicinity"; they can be "busted" from furlough privileges for stopping at a convenience store for a Coke on the way, for example.

The majority of inmates are non-working, full-time residents for the duration of their sentences.

For those who are curious, here's what it's really like in Tent City.

After turning myself in, "checking in" consisted of hours of sitting in crowded holding cells with others as shaken as myself. These periods, aided by the ambience provided by the odor of institutional disinfectant, were interrupted by the occasional fingerprinting, photographing, searches, verbal sexual abuse by some institutionalized or otherwise stir-crazy female inmates in a nearby crowded cell - this last having an eerily inexplicable innocence about it - and general manhandling by detention officers who wore their weary, disdainful cynicism in a manner made all the more humiliating by its inevitability.

This was happily concluded by a charming march to the dorm, charged by an officer, who admonished that "if I see anyone's head turn to the right or to the left, then he will be pepper-gassed or stun-gunned, depending on which falls into my hands first."

Sitting in the dorm, where the inmates eat, shower and shave, I looked around at my new compatriots, afraid.

A couple of hours later, we were assigned to tents scattered throughout the yard.

I've never served a sentence before, and I was relieved to go to a tent outdoors after all of those hours in cells.

"I can do this," I thought.

There were fences around me, but the sky is still infinite. That's about where the charm ends.

The tents are old, single-ply, canvas army surplus, most with holes in the sides and tops. Inmates stuff sheets and blankets into the holes against the cold November desert breezes. Side zippers are broken, doors are torn.

Because of age, faulty manufacture, and amateurish tent-raising, most don't reach the ground on the sides. Aside from the orderly arrangements of the slabs of concrete on which they are constructed, they are reminiscent of slums I've seen in Bombay with their multicolored rags stuffed against the weather. In mid-November, when airport lows were reported at freezing, early-morning temperatures were at least 5 degrees lower.

Ridiculous inadequacy

"Heat" is provided by one portable indoor space heater per tent, ankle-high and approximately 3 feet long. They must be seen and experienced to appreciate their ridiculous inadequacy.

Most, if not all, of the inmates are sick with a flulike malady we called "the Estrella crud." I am one of those fortunates who rarely get sick, but during the aforementioned weekend, I shivered with fever all of one Saturday, with another concerned inmate bringing me chicken soup and hot chocolate from a vending machine in the dorm - which, incidentally, is a breach of rules: No food or drink in the yard. Within a few years of operation, Estrella's pebble-and-sand yard should be effectively paved with the congealing expectorations from hacking residents.

The conditions of the "Porta-Johns" is repelling. I went into the dorm to urinate but decided to return to the portable toilets after looking at the conditions of the inside. I watched urine/fluid trickle from the overflowing seat of the plastic urinal.

It rained the second weekend - I luckily had no leaks directly above me, but others weren't so lucky - which left three portable toilets sitting in a large puddle of rainwater and who knows what else.

I was puzzled on my fourth weekend by the uncharacteristic early cleaning of the johns Saturday morning - i.e. before the were full. My confusion dissipated when I saw documentary cameras on the roof that afternoon. The word on the yard was that it was the BBC.

Rules vs. reality

Jail rules: No smoking, food or drink in the yard. No commerce of any kind.

Reality: Many times an hour, inmates came into the tent hawking cigarettes, marijuana, speed, cocaine, boxer shorts, socks, sweat shirts, "Ladmo" bags - Joe Arpaio's cold lunches - oranges, apples, nicotine patches, blankets, and anything else one can imagine to bring comfort to the incarcerated.

A game was played between the officers and inmates regarding enforcement, partly cat-and-mouse capriciousness, partly, I'm sure, enabling a "selective enforcement" window to assist officers in controlling truly troublesome inmates.

Jail is jail, not the Ritz-Carlton, Uncle Joe likes to say, and he's right. This is what it's really like. I am not necessarily aiming to raise outrage against his Tent City. I did, after all, commit the dangerous crime of operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol.

But to other potential inmates, I say, you don't want to go there.

And to the taxpayers, I want you to be aware of what you are paying for and for whom you are voting.
I was informed by a parent of one of the inmates that there was a shit-storm on the yard that Sunday morning, mostly massive searches for contraband. I was also told that my name was being cursed by both officers and inmates, so I must have said something right.

A Free And Clear Moon (Tent City)

A few years ago, I wrote a melancholic song exploring the state-of-mind of "Tent City" inmates - A Free And Clear Moon (Tent City) - and, in an impulse, sent a copy off to the famously un-self-aware bully of a Sheriff. He wasted no time in displaying his opaqueness, apparently missing the ironic nature of the song:
November 1, 2002

Michael J. Petro
Phoenix, AZ 85014

Dear Mr. Petro,

Thanks for sending me a copy of your CD with its "tribute" to Tent City. We listened to it during our staff meeting Monday, and why not? It's related to our office!

Joseph M. Arpaio
Maricopa County Sheriff


  1. A worthy and frightening essay. You just got linked & name-checked by the best progressive blogger on the web, digby. Congrats!

  2. Wow, digby. I'm a bit gobsmacked. Thanks for the heads up, and the kind words, GregM!


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