Depending on your point of view, Joe Arpaio has earned either the enviable or unenviable reputation as the “Toughest Sheriff in America”. He currently holds the position in Maricopa County, Arizona and has stated in the past that his primary goal was to have most populated jail in the country.
He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on June 14, 1932 and had what one might consider a pretty rough childhood. His mother died during his birth and his father, an immigrant from Italy was either not equipped to raising him or showed little if any interest. As a result, young Joe spent the majority of his formative years being shuffled back and forth between other members of his family.
When he turned eighteen he enlisted in the Army and served a three year stint. After his discharge he landed first in Washington, D.C.
and later Las Vegas, Nevada
. He served on the police force in both of those cities for a little over five years.
During his time in Vegas he applied for and was accepted for a job as a Special Agent within the Drug Enforcement Administration. He would toil away at that position for the next thirty two years with assignments in Mexico and Turkey. During that time he earned the respect and admiration from his peers as evidenced by the nickname bestowed upon him. It seems “Nicklebag Joe” was fond of making small time arrests.
After leaving the DEA, Joe decided to perform a public service and ran for the office of Sheriff in Maricopa County in 1992. He won. I guess the populace of Maricopa County liked his tough style and he has since been elected every four years.
Joe always felt that criminals shouldn’t be coddled. One of his first actions as Sheriff was to begin to cut the budget on prison food. He figured that you could feed inmates on a budget of about .90 cents a day and started serving them surplus “food” that consisted of products that were beyond their expiration date and bologna that had become oxidized and turned green. Instead of the traditional three squares a day, he reduced the number to two. As of 2007, he bragged that he had cut food costs down to .30 cents a day per prisoner.
To show he wasn’t fucking around, Joe also removed coffee from the prison “menu” and banned the use of salt and pepper. He claimed these actions were saving the taxpayers of Maricopa County at least twenty grand a year. But Joe wasn’t through just yet, not by along shot.
Soon afterwards, smoking was banned. Porn magazines were confiscated and exercise equipment such as weightlifting tools also bit the dust. As far as entertainment went, Joe limited the intake to G-Rated movies only. He managed to limit the use of cable television to include only Animal Planet, The Disney Channel, The Weather Channel, CNN, A&E and of course the local government access channel.
To me, that doesn’t sound like what I’d call “party central” but after all, this was prison and prisoners certainly don’t deserve the same rights as normal law abiding citizens. But Joe still had along way to go…
In 2005 Joe got fed up of hearing all of the Spanish speaking prisoners busted in his county and started a mandatory program that consisted of English classes for two hours a day for two weeks. Most of the classes centered around what you and I would likely compare to a civics lesson and each inmate was required to take the course was also required to take a test. Besides answering questions about government and policies, they were also required to know all of the words to God Bless America.
In 2007 Joe took to the airwaves when he formed KJOE, an in house prison radio station that was broadcast from the basement. Those prisoners lucky enough to find themselves incarcerated in "Joe’s House" could now look forward to being serenaded by the likes of classical music, opera, Frank Sinatra tunes, patriotic music and Broadway show tunes. If you wanted to listen to talk radio, educational programs were also available. In a rare show of compassion, Joe only broadcast the station four hours a day and five days a week.
I know some of this stuff sounds trivial by nature but over time I’m betting that kinda stuff would get to you.
Joe also took a hint from The Pretenders and their hit “Back on the Chain Gang”. He reinstituted that policy shortly after taking office. Inmates who were deemed as “low risk” could now look forward to working eight hours a day for six days a week under the hot Arizona sun. It mostly consisted of manual labor such as the digging of ditches and fire breaks, picking up roadside trash and occasionally digging a grave or two at the local Potter's Field. Joe also proved that he was an equal opportunity employer when he instituted the first all female chain gang. Taking it one step further and proving that there’s no such thing as child labor, juveniles soon followed suit.
From what I’ve heard, prisons, especially male prisons are a pretty macho kinda place. Only the strongest of the strong get to rise up among the prison population and call their subordinates their “prison bitch”. Joe had answer to that one too. All prisoners underwear would be dyed pink. The move proved so popular among the general population (I can’t speak for the prisoners) that they were soon offering to buy customized pink boxer shorts emblazoned with the town and sheriff logo.
Perhaps Joe’s most controversial move was the creation of a “Tent City”. It seems he reckoned that since those liberal bastards on the courts were releasing prisoners due to overcrowding, he’d come up with a plan to make them serve their time. Since a new jail was fiscally out of the question, Joe went out and bought a shitload of used tents from the military and established camp in a parking lot adjacent from the prison itself. He then erected a huge pink neon “Vacancy” sign.
I’ve never been to Arizona but from what I hear, it’s hot. Real fuckin’ hot. During the summer of 2003 temperatures topped off at about 110 degree Fahrenheit. In a show of mercy, Joe decided to allow the prisoners incarcerated in Tent City to parade around in only their pink underwear.
As if parading around Tent City in your pink undies wasn’t enough, how about a march down the streets of the city? In 2005 a new jail was constructed and prisoners who were to serve their time in the new facility were forced to walk to their new home clad in only their boxers and sandals. Joe’s reasoning was that if they were allowed to wear clothes, they might conceal some contraband.
I know it’s not the Bataan Death March or anything but damn, sometimes you gotta cut somebody a little slack.
In closing, I don’t know what to make of Sheriff Joe and his antics. Sure, they sound trivial to me and one part of me wants to laugh at what might seem like harmless jibes directed at those under his charge. The other part of me questions his motives as a publicity hound and his penchant for removing a person's dignity.
One thing I’m sure of though, if I’m ever unfortunate enough to find myself looking at some prison time, I sure the hell hope it ain’t in Maricopa County, Arizona