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Know the West

The untouchable sheriff of Maricopa County celebrates a questionable legacy


It costs less than a dollar a day to feed an inmate of Maricopa County's Tent City. Meals are served without flourishes like salt and pepper, which saves taxpayers a few bucks and reminds inmates that jail is not supposed to be fun, much less pleasing to the palate.

So the cake and ice cream inmates were treated to this weekend must have tasted really good. Then again, maybe not: The dessert was less a humane gesture to deprived prisoners than an exercise in public humiliation -- Tent City's specialty. It was served in celebration of the outdoor jail's 20th anniversary. The canvas encampment in the Phoenix desert has become infamous in that time for its lack of heat and air conditioning, its chain gangs, its emasculating standard-issue pink underwear and cartoonish black-and-white striped uniforms, its terrible food. "It costs more to feed the dogs than it does the inmates," Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio boasted to New Yorker writer William Finnegan in 2009. (Just to rub it in, the Food Network is in the small handful of television channels inmates are allowed to watch. As is the Weather Channel: "So these morons know how hot it's going to be while they are working on my chain gangs," Arpaio told Finnegan.) Being forced to celebrate this place, from the inside, would leave a bitter taste in most of our mouths.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio with Maricopa County Tent City inmates.

Actually, that's the point. Arpaio's philosophy is that if jail is a sufficiently terrible experience, criminals won't offend again and risk reliving the nightmare. The publicity-loving Arpaio employs especially flamboyant tactics -- the mandatory pink underwear, forcing hundreds of inmates to walk from one prison to another wearing only said underwear, parading hundreds more Latino inmates through the streets of Phoenix in chains -- and is rewarded with national media attention, flattering and not.

With all the publicity, his nostalgic approach to punishment, and his claim to be "America's toughest sheriff," you might think Arpaio is anomaly -- one of a kind. In fact, says Mona Lynch, a professor of criminology and author of the 2009 book Sunbelt Justice: Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment, Arpaio is just one member of the nationwide "punitive revolution," albeit an especially flashy one.

"He has these extreme characteristics, they're very showy and over-the-top," says Lynch. "But in some ways, they really are just an exemplification of what was (already) happening in the world of punishment. He is a trend setter in that he takes things beyond what other people are doing. But he also borrows from the past, ... (and) picks up on mentalities in the political sphere and in public opinion. A punitive mentality was pretty rampant in Arizona (when Arpaio came into office in 1993), and he exploited it."

The punitive revolution emerged in the 1970s, when both liberals and conservatives lost faith in the rehabilitative potential of prisons, though for different reasons. In The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America, Marie Griffin and Melinda Tasca write that liberals believed the wide discretion given to judges, correctional and parole officers to dole out criminal punishment created a discriminatory system. Conservatives believed rehabilitative approaches were too soft on crime. The result, says Lynch, was that both the politics and practice of punishment began to shift. "The notion that prisons were built to rehabilitate offenders really fell out (of favor) in the 1970s," she says. "By the 1980s, you saw a very steady increase in reliance on prisons, but with a different underlying ethos. They were meant to just keep people off the streets, 'lock em up and throw away the key' -- that kind of talk really took over." This sort of rhetoric seemed to emanate from the Sunbelt, in particular, Lynch says. "These places didn't have a strong connection to the rehabilitative philosophy," she explains, adding, "That Arpaio came up in Arizona is no shock."

In fact, many of Arpaio's "innovations" weren't really his. Tent cities were erected to deal with overcrowding in Arizona before Arpaio arrived on the scene (though the state's version is slightly kinder, boasting heat and air conditioning). Prisons elsewhere had already become more purposefully punishing places, with visitations restricted, food quality cut, privileges revoked. "The pink underwear really is original, I think," Lynch comments.  But all in all, she wrote in her 2009 book, "[T]he late twentieth-century 'punishment wave' has been characterized by a generalized 'devolving standards of decency' within the U.S. penal system." And Arpaio has become the national face of this movement, its greatest champion.

He appears to have struck a powerful cultural chord. Arpaio has easily won re-election time and again, despite the thousands of lawsuits that have been filed against his department for prison abuse, civil rights violations and racial profiling. Though a federal court recently found that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office had carried out "systematic racial profiling" against Latinos, a petition effort failed to gather the necessary signatures to prompt a recall of Arpaio. The treatment of prisoners in Tent City has outraged many outside observers, but the opening of the jail increased his popularity in Maricopa County.

So has this tough-on-criminals approach to crime-fighting worked? Not so much, say Griffin and Tasca. "Despite surges in incarceration rates, little evidence supports the notion that increased punishment reduces crime," they write. "In contrast, most of the research suggests that lengthier prison terms are associated with increased criminal behavior," and harsh punishment in prison does not reduce recidivism.

"There's been a real disconnect between punitive practices and what actually works," says Lynch. That's starting to change in some states, she says, a result of both substantial evidence of the ineffectiveness of crueler punishment and state fiscal crises. Some state are jumping on the "evidence-based corrections" bandwagon, "which is sort of an ethos that we should do things that are going to have effects we hope to accomplish." But Arizona isn't, either at the state level, or in Maricopa County. There have been some attempts to lighten sentencing in the state, Lynch says, "But the talk out of Arizona seems to be, 'well, maybe if we can punish cheaper, we can still do what we want to do.' " Arpaio, for his part, continues to rely on "this common-sense notion that if you treat them badly enough, they won't want to come back." Evidence be damned.

Photo courtesy Flickr user uusc4all, licensed under Creative Commons.

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor. She tweets @callycarswell.