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Sheriff Joe

The Wild, Wild West

BY Silja J.A. Talvi

“Sheriff Joe” Arpaio, who served as an ACA Arizona host committee chairperson, is revered in corrections circles for his law-and-order media savvy. At the conference, all the buzz was about Sheriff Joe’s gleaming 620,000 square-foot 4th Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix, which opened for business in 2004.

Palm print and iris scanners, video-visitation systems (complete with “scratch screens” to prevent damage from angry inmates), and a casino-style surveillance system that manages images from the facility’s 700 cameras were among the high-tech bells and whistles featured on a tour of the windowless mega-jail. Many of the more than two dozen private companies who collaborated to create the 4th Avenue Jail were exhibitors at the ACA conference, including the architectural firm Durrant/HOK; Trussbilt (cell-wall paneling, detention accessories, windows and steel doors); SpaceSaver (property shelving); and Multimedia Telesys, which also provided the audiovisual equipment for each workshop.

The goal had been to create an ultra-secure jail that maximized efficiency, something that jail captain Charles Johnson compared to “a car assembly line” in the July/August 2004 issue of Correctional News. Johnson also reported that Sheriff Joe kept complaining that the outside of the jail looked “too pretty.” The exterior of the facility was purposely designed so as not to upset locals and tourists headed to nearby Diamondback Stadium.

Things are certainly not pretty for Maricopa County Jail inmates, and Sheriff Joe wants to keep it that way. He made sure that the $137 million jail did not supplant Maricopa County’s highly controversial tent city, where inmates are housed in the desert and put to work. Pink handcuffs, underwear and sheets for male inmates are used in all of the Maricopa County jails, as a way to assure “theft prevention”—or ensure humiliation, as the case may be. Low-quality, cost-saving meals have been another way to ensure that inmates get the taste, look and feel of Sheriff Joe’s style of punishment.

Leading up to Kerik’s opening keynote address, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon touted Sheriff Joe as the “toughest sheriff in the country,” adding that if conference-goers found a bit of that infamous jailhouse green bologna in their catered meals, they should “blame Joe.”

The audience chuckled heartily.

Silja J.A. Talvi, a senior editor at In These Times, is an investigative journalist and essayist with credits in many dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide, including The Nation, Salon, Santa Fe Reporter, Utne, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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