Give Joe Arpaio the investigation he so richly deserves

This news is almost a week old, but I am greatly relieved to see that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers and others have called for a federal investigation into the conduct of Maricopa County, AZ Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a man whose style of law enforcement is a blend of  nineteen sixties Alabama and Spain under Franco, with just a touch of Aleksandr Lukashekno-style personality cult flamboyance thrown in for good measure. Joe Arpaio turned his county into an authoritarian fiefdom, ruled by fear, brutality, and racism, where prisons are industry and entertainment, and punishment is applied as an end in itself. Famously, Apraio, a county sheriff, became the subject of criticism by global human rights watchdog Amnesty International and the High Courts of Ireland and Iceland.

He’s that bad.

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.

Disturbing reads, disturbing thoughts

What I’ve been reading lately:

  • Erik Prince the humanitarian? Um, no. The founder and owner of Blackwater Worldwide, the private security contractor (PSC) of Nisour Square infamy, should have no involvement with aid organizations and decision-makers in aid organizations should have the good sense to stay well away from Prince and his ilk.
  • The CIA is handing out viagra to tribal leaders in Afghanistan in exchange for information and safe access. This strikes me as a Very Bad Idea, and I agree with Cara at Feministe that it smacks of misogyny and recklessness, and, I would add, cynicism –it’s not “thinking out of the box,” or any such nonsense. Let’s get over that.  It’s old-school sex-for-information bribery, only with a pharmaceutical twist. Just check out this quote from the article.

“You didn’t hand it out to younger guys, but it could be a silver bullet to make connections to the older ones,” said one retired operative familiar with the drug’s use in Afghanistan. Afghan tribal leaders often had four wives — the maximum number allowed by the Koran — and aging village patriarchs were easily sold on the utility of a pill that could “put them back in an authoritative position,” the official said.

Moving on.

  • Russia is forcing the OSCE Mission in Georgia to close down.  This is terrible for Georgia and terrible for the OSCE. Crap.
  • Joe Arpaio, one of contemporary America’s notable homegrown human rights violators, is getting his own reality TV show. I’ll get back to this after I stop retching.

Simultaneity* and juxtaposition

Nasim at Afghan Lord has a post up about his visit to Parwez Kambakhsh in prison. Here’s part of it:

The salon is terribly noisy, you can’t hear even your own voice. Visitors are shouting to the prisoners and prisoners shout to visitors. The guy who called the prisoners is called “Jarchi” (Farsi). It was the second time I asked him to call Sayed Parwiz Kambakhsh, and then immediately he appeared. I waved to him and went a step closer behind the bars but the reticulated wall of metals didn’t allow me to touch his fingers.

He seemed disappointed and desperately waved at me. Only for a few seconds I got closer to him, closer to hear him, which was difficult because of the noise. Suddenly my left shoulder was pulled back roughly and I saw two policemen who asked me what I was telling to Kambakhsh.

It’s startling to reflect on: a university student is sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2007, then his sentence is commuted to twenty years imprisonment a year later. The imprisoned student’s devastated friends post photos of him on facebook advocacy groups, and one of his countrymen visits him in prison and blogs about it. After reading Nasim’s post, I thought about the extraordinary juxtaposition here –social utilities that epitomize modernity and the age of instant, borderless communication being used to rally support for a victim of medieval politics.

Photo of Parwez Kambakhsh (left) and friend. Taken from facebook group "Save freedom of speech in Afghanistan."

Photo of Parwez Kambakhsh (left) and friend. From facebook group "Save freedom of speech in Afghanistan."

*Simultaneity: the property of two or more events happening at the same time.

And now the pressure builds

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are the preeminent human rights organizations in the world. As go HRW and Amnesty, so goes the rest of the human rights movement.

So, I was very happy to see that Amnesty has followed HRW in calling for some kind of accountability for perpetrators of human rights abuses during the Bush years.

Amnesty is calling for; criminal investigations into rendition and secret detention programs, a rejection of immunity for perpetrators of torture and other crimes, full disclosure of the names, fates, and whereabouts of disappeared persons, redress for victims, and,  most importantly because the rest depend on it,  the creation of an independent commission –a truth commission, but Amnesty doesn’t use that term.

HRW does, however:

Ensure the establishment of a nonpartisan investigatory commission (“truth commission”), equipped with subpoena powers and adequate funding to investigate and publicly report on post-9/11 counterterrorism-related abuses, recommend how those responsible should be held accountable, and specify steps to ensure that such abuses are never repeated.

I hope both organizations set aside time, staff, and money to see that this is a major priority. It’s necessary for so, so many reasons, and I can’t think of a more opportune time to impanel a truth commission than this coming spring, when the Obama Administration will be new and flush with political capital.

Afghanistan rationale: part 1

I can’t stop thinking about the article about the innocent Afghan women and girls serving multi-decade prison sentences with little hope of release. I’ll remember the details at some random moment, like walking home from class or on the bus to work, and it triggers what I can best describe as a child’s sense of outrage –the kind of outrage that is not couched in nuanced intellectual arguments. That’s just so incredibly and totally wrong, I think, and find myself balling up my fists or biting my lip.

I don’t often view things in moral absolutes of right and wrong, but, with this, I absolutely do. Oh, I really, really do.

It’s the fifteen year old girl serving a twenty-year prison sentence that my mind drifts to during my Post-Communist Politics class, as my classmates argue about the appeal of communism to the Chinese peasantry.

I have to go to Afghanistan, I think. I have to go to Afghanistan. I have to go to Afghanistan. I will go to Afghanistan. After I graduate, I will go to Afghanistan.

It is this thought that distracts me. It intrudes when I’m trying to pay attention as my professors lecture on the political economy of terrorism or why American political culture places so much emphasis on winning. When my classmates are giddily discussing game theory, I find myself glancing at the clock. I used to love this stuff. It used to thrill me, but now the thrill is gone. Abstracts don’t move me anymore, and theory interests me only to the extent that I can turn it into something tangible.

I’m not going to be an academic, I’m going to work in places like, well, Afghanistan. Teach me how to empower idealistic young journalists in the face of a violent and corrupt government that would like nothing more than to see them permanently silenced. Teach me how to interview victims of human rights violations. Teach me what to say to a fifteen year old girl who is, for the “crime” of pre-marital sex, serving a prison sentence that would be deemed long for murder in much of Europe.

But, I know these aren’t things I can learn in a classroom. I’ll have to learn by facing them in real life, and I plan to.