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Arizona criminals find jail too in-'tents'

Arpaio has dramatically cut prison costs since becoming sheriff seven years ago


July 27, 1999
Web posted at: 2:00 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT)

In this story:

Pink underwear and bedtime stories


MARICOPA COUNTY, Arizona (CNN) -- The tent city looks like a military camp in the desert, with thick canvas sleeping quarters spreading out in a remote area of Arizona.

The inhabitants, however, are not soldiers, but residents of an unusual, some say brutal, prison run by legendary lawman Joe Arpaio, called the toughest sheriff in the West.

For the Maricopa County sheriff, who opened the nation's largest tent prison in 1993, saving taxpayer pennies matters more than comforting convicted felons.

"We took away coffee, that saved $150,000 a year. Why do you need coffee in jail?" says Arpaio, patrolling the dusty, barren grounds. "Switched to bologna sandwiches, that saved half a million dollars a year."

Arpaio makes inmates pay for their meals, which some say are worse than those for the guard dogs. Canines eat $1.10 worth of food a day, the inmate 90 cents, the sheriff says. "I'm very proud of that too."

Critics rail against harsh conditions in the prison, where temperatures can top 100 degrees.

"We still have rights, but they act like we're scum," one inmate complains.

Adds Eleanor Eisenberg of the ACLU: "Sheriff Arpaio has conditions in his jail that are inhumane, and he's proud of it."

Arpaio boasts of his chain gangs for men and women, which "contribute thousands of dollars of free labor to taxpayers each month," according to his Web site.

Sheriff Arpaio requires inmates to wear striped uniforms and pink underwear  

Pink underwear and bedtime stories

Inmates follow strict fashion and lifestyle guidelines. They are forced to wear old-fashioned prison stripes and pink underwear. Prohibited items include cigarettes, adult magazines, hot lunches and television -- except for his bedtime story reading, a self-styled literacy program broadcast nightly to the inmates.

The sheriff, who spent more than 25 years in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, including a stint as a special agent in Turkey, has taken justice to rare extremes in other areas as well.

He has the nation's largest group of volunteer law enforcers, according to his Web site. More than 2,500 people are in his "posse," who go after prostitutes, graffiti artists and criminals at shopping malls.

Although Arpaio has lowered the prison budget, his unorthodox prison management style has led to some high legal expenses. The country has been hit with hundreds of inmate-related lawsuits, and ordered to pay millions in legal damages. Recent cases include:

In January, the county settled a wrongful-death suit filed by the family of Scott Norberg for $8.5 million. He died, reportedly of asphyxiation, as he struggled with prison guards in 1996.

The inmates live in tents in a sparse environment without air conditioning  

In April, a jury awarded $1.5 million to an inmate denied medical treatment for a perforated ulcer. Tim Griffin, arrested for driving with a suspended license, required several surgeries for the perforated ulcer.

Another former inmate suing Arpaio, Richard Post, a paraplegic, claims guards treated him brutally and caused spinal cord damage.

Arpaio, who has also settled a civil suit with the U.S. Department of Justice over jail conditions, brushes off charges of brutality.

"That's garbage. Look at my officers. We run the safest jail system in the U.S.," he said.

Arpaio is among the state's most popular office-holders. He enjoys an 85 percent approval rating among voters in the county, which at 9,200 square miles is larger than some states, and includes the city of Phoenix.

Even some inmates treat him like a celebrity. As the sheriff stands in a group of female prisoners, one presents a legal pad.

"You want an autograph? What you got here? What's your name?" he asks.

On another occasion, a male prisoner, a look of anger on his face, tries to talk to the sheriff, who quickly interrupts:

"You have been convicted. You're doing your time. Do your time and shut your mouth and do what you have to do."

Correspondent Jim Hill CNN contributed to this report.

Sleepwalking defense in Arizona murder trial
May 25, 1999
'Torture, plain and simple': Amnesty International reports abuse in women's prisons
March 4, 1999
U.S. accused of human rights abuses in prisons
October 5, 1998
Prison has plenty of guard, but no prisoners
May 17, 1996

Maricopa County Sheriff's Office
Maricopa County Online
US DOJ paper on Maricopa County Jails' improper use of restraints
Ill-Treatment of Inmates in Maricopa County Jails - Arizona
An Evaluation of the Maricopa County Demand Reduction Program.
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