Sheriff runs female chain gang
PHOENIX, Arizona (Reuters) -- Sheriff Joe Arpaio boasts that he runs the only all-female chain gang in history.
For the chief lawman of Maricopa County, which includes the 3 million residents of Phoenix and its satellite cities and suburbs, presiding over the chain gang fits his self-declared image of being the toughest sheriff in America.
Under Arpaio, the 8,000 inmates of the county jail system work seven days a week, are fed only twice a day, get no coffee, no cigarettes, no salt, pepper or ketchup and no organized recreation. Human rights groups regard it as the harshest jail system in the United States.
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.
Most inmates are serving sentences of a year or less for relatively minor convictions or are awaiting trial because they could not make bail.
They wear pink underwear and black and white striped uniforms. Around 2,000 inmates live in tents under the blazing Arizona sun in temperatures which last summer often exceeded 120 degrees Fahrenheit . Even in mid-October, it was over 100 degrees.
"I got meal costs down to 40 cents a day per inmate. It costs $1.15 a day to feed the department's dogs. Now, I'm cutting prisoners' calories from 3,000 to 2,500 a day," the sheriff said during a recent tour of his tent city.
"Do you hear me?" he asked the inmates who surrounded him. "You're too fat. I'm taking away your food because I'm trying to help you. I'm on a diet myself. You eat too much fat."
Several prisoners told Arpaio they often received rotten food. "The cheese is old. The meat has green spots. And the heat kills you," said Tom Silha, 42, serving nine months for fraud.
Arpaio told him he didn't care. "If you don't like it, don't come back," he said. But jail spokeswoman Lisa Allen McPherson said that 60 percent of inmates did in fact come back for more than one term.
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.
"I was thinking as they lowered that casket into the ground, 'Where is the mother of this child?"' said Defonda McInelly, serving eight months for check forgery.
"I think about my son, Chaz. He is 3. I miss him immensely. 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."
Father Wack said he did not particularly appreciate having the chain gang assist with the burials.
"It's free labor and it's undignified. How is this helping to rehabilitate anyone?" he said.
Locked down or chained up
The women all volunteered for chain gang duty to get out of lock-down, where four prisoners are shut in a cell 8 by 12 square feet 23 hours a day. If they spend 30 days on the chain gang, picking up trash, weeding or burying bodies, they can get out of the punishment cells and back to the tents.
"It feels weird being seen in public, chained up together, wearing stripes. People honk their horns or shout at you," said Tylisha Chewning, who was jailed for violating probation after renting a car and failing to return it for two months.
Arpaio, who was elected sheriff in 1992 promising to be tough on crime and intends to seek a fourth term next year, said he wanted to start a chain gang for juveniles soon too.
"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.
But critics said there was no evidence that chain gangs had any deterrent effect.
"The intent is humiliation of the inmates and political grandstanding for the public. It makes the sheriff look tough and that's all it does," said Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, a Washington think-tank which promotes reduced reliance on incarceration in the justice system.
Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch said Arpaio was clearly unfamiliar with or did not care about international treaties that set human rights standards binding on all U.S. officials.
"These laws prohibit cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment, yet Arpaio takes great pride in subjecting prisoners to degrading treatment," she said.
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