Photo of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, taken from the People Against Sheriff Joe Arpaio Facebook page
The United States has the largest prison population in the world – over 1.5 million adults. Many of these people are jailed for petty offenses like minor possession, violating the three strikes rule, or being financially unable to pay tickets. And yet, instead of protesting our unfairly punitive laws that do nothing, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona decided to build a concentration camp.
Yes, you read that right: he built a concentration camp.
In 1993, Maricopa County experienced an increase in prisoners that filled their prison beyond capacity. Building a new prison would cost about $70 million, so newly elected Sheriff Arpaio decided to grab some Korean War era Army surplus tents, stake them out in the middle of the desert, and send people there – without adequate cooling, without enough water, with little food, and without proper medical attention. Unsurprisingly, prisoners have died from medical inattention, dehydration, and heat stroke.
However, just physically harming the inmates wasn’t enough. No, Sheriff Arpaio decided that he needed to humiliate them as well. Inmates now wear cartoonish black-and-white striped uniforms, pink underwear for the men, and are conscripted into chain gangs for grueling daylong shifts. He and his staff then target Latino inmates, mocking and punishing them for their broken English, hurling racial slurs and epithets, and routinely shipping them out to immigration – even if they’re American citizens.
Perhaps you think this is justified. After all, these people broke the law. They deserve to be punished, don’t they?
Well, actually, some of them didn’t break the law. Some of them haven’t even gone to trial yet. And none of them are particularly violent or predatory. Those that have actually been convicted usually have very short sentences of a year or less for drug possession, car theft, or driving under the influence.
To make a bad situation somehow even worse, Sheriff Arpaio also runs the Tent City Prison as a publicity machine, offering constant tours, inviting high level politicians over, fundraising with the pink underwear, and throwing a celebration for the facility every year on its anniversary. He’s created a cult of personality where he can run for re-election on pink underwear and the moniker “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” and people will cheer. He’s been re-elected six times.
Numerous groups have cited him for civil rights violations, including the UN, the ACLU, and the Department of Justice. He, his department, and his jails have cost the taxpayers over $140 million since 1993 – more than twice the initial cost to build a new jail. He’s been investigated for corruption, misuse of funds, civil rights violations, racial profiling, overstepping his authority, and contempt of court.
The thought that a tent city prison whose warden aims to humiliate and abuse inmates exists without the United States (and has for over 20 years) is surreal. How could we let this happen? How could we think that it’s okay to treat people this way? Aren’t prisons supposed to help correct? How does forcing petty offenders to bake under the hot sun help them correct their ways? How does demeaning people make them any less likely to commit crimes? How does violating human rights help in any way?
When you break the law, you should expect punishment, but the punishment should fit the crime. Torture is not a fitting punishment. Slow death is not a fitting punishment. Daily beatings and harassment are not a fitting punishment. And allowing one man to administer his own twisted sense of punishment should not be acceptable.
But there is good news: in August, Sheriff Arpaio comes up for re-election. The people of Arizona can finally get him out of office. So if you value human dignity and due process, spread the word: vote Sheriff Joe Arpaio out of office on August 30, 2016.
To learn more, click here to go to the People Against Sheriff Joe Arpaio Facebook page.