Joe Arpaio: From human rights abuser to reality TV sensation

PHOENIX— In Arizona, seeing Joe Arpaio on TV is nothing new. But the self-described “America’s toughest sheriff” now has a national platform to pursue lawbreakers that stretches beyond the 5 o’clock news.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the state’s most populous county, has a starring role in “Smile … You’re Under Arrest!,” a new reality show debuting Saturday on Fox Reality Channel.

Smile…You’re Under Arrest!

Unaware criminal suspects with outstanding warrants are lured out of hiding in this high-energy prank show. Original, inventive, unique and funny, Smile…You’re Under Arrest! creates elaborate comical stings to bring real runaway fugitives to justice.

Armed with a troupe of improvisational actors, comedy writers and of course, the police, the show masterminds some of the most hysterical and outrageous stings ever caught on tape.

Actual wanted criminals are lured in using various scenarios such as a job as an extra on a movie set with the promise of good pay; or a fake fashion shoot where the subject thinks he is about to become a supermodel. In the end all the participants are revealed as officers of the law, and the criminal is apprehended. It’s a prank show that takes the entire genre to a whole new level – who knew comedy could be this dangerous?

Here’s something the cheerful news blurbs and network promotions won’t tell you: Joe Arpaio has been slapped with over two thousand lawsuits by the relatives of inmates in his prisons.  Why so much litigation? The answer is as sordid as it is simple: Joe Arpaio is a brutal, career human rights abuser.

His brutality has made him a legendary figure to  the “lock ‘em up, rough ‘em up” and anti-immigrant constituencies, and a notorious one to human rights and humanitarian groups. Joe Arpaio is a someone who believes a law enforcement badge entitles –no, commands– its possessor to do whatever he or she chooses, and that people convicted or even simply accused of crimes forfeit their human rights and become mere subjects of a system.

In one jail, Arpaio forces male inmates to wear pink underwear and pink handcuffs, and use pink towels, as a form of humiliation, playing on inmate’s powerlessness and fears of emasculation. He’s also re-introduced chain gangs, a form of punishment that most American prisons have abandoned as cruel and archaic. Arpaio’s female and juvenile prisoner chain gangs have attracted great media fascination, and he boasts of them often.

“I use it for deterrence to fight crime. I put them right on the street where everyone can see them. If a kid asks his mother, she can tell them this is what happens to people who break the law,” he said.

Journalists paint a very different picture of Apraio’s chain gangs.

[...] Next morning at 6 a.m., 15 women assembled for chain gang duty. They were padlocked together by the ankle, five to each chain, and marched military style out to a van that transported them to their work site — a county cemetery half an hour out of the city in the desert.

The women had to bury the bodies of indigents who had died in the streets or in the hospital without family and without the money to pay for a proper funeral. Father Bill Wack, a young Catholic priest, and Sister Mary Ruth Dittman, were waiting for them. The first body was that of a baby, in a tiny white casket, who did not even have a name. Wack said a prayer for the baby and Dittman recited the 23rd Psalm while some of the women silently wept. Then, they filled in the grave and moved on to the next body. Altogether, the women laid to rest six people, including two babies. Jets from a nearby military base continuously blasted overhead, interrupting the brief prayers.

Thousands of Apraio’s prisoners are forced to live in tents outside, even in the heat of the Arizona summer, when the temperatures inside the tents soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Others are crammed into overcrowded cells. They are made to work seven days a week and are fed only twice a day, on nutritionally-deficient and sometimes spoiled food. Inmates’ meals cost just thirty cents each, which, brags Arpaio, is less than it costs to feed prison dogs.

Arpaio does nothing to hide the narcissistic authoritarianism and cult-of-personality aspects of his cruelty. In fact, he flaunts them for all to see.

They have to pay $10 every time they need to see a nurse. If they want to write to their families, they have to use special postcards with the sheriff’s picture on them. If their loved ones visit, they see them through thick plate glass or over a video link.

[...] “I think about my son, Chaz. He is 3. I miss him immensely, ” said Defonda McInelly, serving eight months for check forgery.  “I don’t have him come and visit me in here. He knows that mommy is in jail and I don’t want him to see mommy for half an hour through a glass window and then be dragged away.”

When a local newspaper dared to investigate what was going on in Maricopa’s jails, Arpaio tried to silence the newspaper. If he’d been born elsewhere (say, Central Asia, or Central Africa), Joe Arpaio would be a warlord-president (think: Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov), or military dictator of some unfortunate country, or the head of a secret police force, or a militia commander terrorizing civilians. Fuck, he’s close enough to that last characterization anyway. In 2006, he created a local law enforcement “posse” in Maricopa county to hunt down and capture undocumented immigrants, work normally done only by federal immigration authorities. The governor of Arizona put a stop to that, calling it dangerous.

That is already flagrantly clear in Arizona’s most populous county, Maricopa, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio has built the biggest 287(g) posse in the country — 160 officers — and deployed it in Hispanic neighborhoods, pulling people over for broken taillights and other traffic infractions and checking papers.

Joe Arpaio has blood on his hands. Lots of it. In just one example among several explained in terrible detail here, Arpaio’s guards beat a mentally disabled man to death.

When Charles Agster arrives at Madison Street Jail, he is confused, as is typical of his condition. He tries to wriggle underneath a bench, and although he is still hogtied, three or more officers and a sheriff’s deputy jump on him, punch him, and knee him in the side. One officer grips his face, pressing upward toward his chin. Although he is now unresponsive, the officers drag him, face down, into the Intake area and strap him into a restraint chair. They place a spit-hood over his head, encasing him in darkness. Minutes later, he stops breathing. The original autopsy lists “positional asphyxia due to restraint” as his cause of death. Videotape of the incident shows guards trying to resuscitate Agster, but he’s already brain dead. A 2002 Amnesty International report expresses concern “that the degree of force used against Agster was grossly disproportionate to any threat posed by him.”

In another case, Ambrett Spencer, an inmate in the ninth month of pregnancy, was denied desperately-needed medical care, resulting in the loss of her baby and very nearly her own life as well.

When EMT Jarrid Ortiz arrived, Spencer, who is African-American, had lost so much color it was clear to him that it was an emergency. “If you are turning that color, you’re not getting enough blood to your organs and skin,” Ortiz later told a sheriff’s detective.

By the time the ambulance arrived at the Maricopa County Hospital, Spencer had been in severe pain and without a doctor for almost four hours. Doctors delivered Ambria Renee Spencer, a 9-pound baby girl with a quarter-inch of thick hair on her head.

Ambria was dead. Spencer’s pain had been caused by internal bleeding — a malady known as placental abruption. Babies often survive the condition, if their mothers go immediately to a hospital. The treatment is simple: immediate delivery. Otherwise, the baby dies from blood loss.

Inmates in Arpaio’s jails aren’t usually allowed to see their babies after birth. Despite protests from the jail guard, hospital employees brought baby Ambria to Spencer, so she could see her daughter before the funeral.

Spencer described the moment for attorneys in her deposition.

“I kept praying that she would just open her eyes because she looked like she was alive.”

A partial list of inmates killed by abuse and neglect can be found here. Because of the cruel system he operates, Joe Arpaio is the most sued sheriff in the United States. Both the ACLU and Amnesty International have criticized the conditions in Arpaio’s jails. Courts in Ireland and Iceland have ruled that persons wanted for crimes in Maricopa county, Arizona  cannot be extradited to the United States because Maricopa correctional facilities do not meet minimum humanitarian standards.

And not only is Joe Arpaio still a free man in spite of all this, he’s now getting his own television show.

In my Visual Culture class, I once joked that reality TV ought to be considered a human rights violation in its own right. I’m not joking now. For all the vapidity and petty sadism of so-called reality television, I really didn’t expect someone like Joe Arpaio to to end up on my TV screen. To market an impunity-drunk human rights abuser as an entertainment personality takes real maleficence.

…I’ll return to this again. I’m not done.