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“Forget the social workers. Forget the shrinks. Forget the ACLU. That’s the way it really is.”
I was interviewing Joe Arpaio in 1995 for a book I had planned to write on chain gangs. I grew up in the 1960s seeing men dressed in zebra stripes, shackled and chained together on the Georgia highways. When I heard that Arpaio had reintroduced chain gangs in Maricopa County, I drove from Tucson to Phoenix to see “Sheriff Joe.” He was delighted to show off his “tough on crime” innovations: pink underwear, bologna sandwiches (sometimes green from age), and Tent City. Arpaio had only been sheriff for two years at the time, but had already gained notoriety—and he was proud of it. Bombastic and vain, he delighted in punishing the men arrested and detained—the majority of whom had not yet gone to trial. They were pretrial detainees, but he tarred all of them with the label of criminal. Arpaio allowed me to see the chain gangs. The men were young, white, African American, Latino: they were eager to talk, either condemning or mocking Arpaio and his publicity antics. As one of them said, "We work for Joe," and another added, “We're his kiddie show.”
Trump's pardon of Joe Arpaio sets a dangerous precedent. Not only did this Maricopa sheriff put pretrial detainees in tents out in the 110 degree Phoenix heat, he also dressed them up in orange jumpsuits, put them in chain gangs, made them wear pink jockey shorts, and stopped serving them salt and pepper to save money. He also slammed immigrants with epithets. He was cruel, pompous, and loved bragging about how he was cleaning up Maricopa County. His pardon will give jailers, prison wardens, IRS officials, and ICE agents the green light to treat cruelly and unusually anyone poor, unlucky, or dark enough to be seized and contained by them.
While my book on chain gangs never materialized (or rather, it turned into The Law Is a White Dog), the photographs I took during my visits to Tent City remain a testament to Arpaio's long legacy of persecution.
“Since I’ve been sheriff, I tell everybody to lock them up. I tell every police officer and judge, ‘Don’t ever tell me that you don’t put people in jail because there’s no room. This sheriff will always have room.’”
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“They said, ‘Build it and they will come.’ Well, I built it, and they will come!”
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“I’m there to detain them, not to rehabilitate them.”
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“Most prisoners are con men through and through.”
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“I think the very least we can ask of our criminals is to sacrifice a little for the taxpayers”
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“Today they won’t like it out there. It’s 120 degrees in Tent City."
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Using military surplus to build Tent City, Arpaio said “I just put up a sixty foot tower. When you see it, you say, ‘Gee, I’m back in the army again.’”
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“Yeah, I do things unusual.”
Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University. Her books include The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons, The Story of Cruel and Unusual, and Haiti, History, and the Gods. She has just published With Dogs at the Edge of Life, a fierce personal enquiry into canine profiling, preemptive justice, and extermination.
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