Therefore, Schulz said, he could not label the activity ascribed to Maricopa County jailers as torture. Too many governments have tortured too many people in this century, Schulz said, to cheapen the term by using it without sufficient evidence, or for borderline cases.

Torture may or may not have occurred, Schulz said; he wouldn't say more without additional detail. Even then, he explained, the judgment would be subjective.

"Unfortunately," he said in almost apologetic tones, "there isn't an absolutely clear standard."

After the Durango Jail riot (which was only a disturbance) had been quelled, Sheriff Arpaio and his public relations minions offered explanation after excuse after rationalization for the unrest, one inside another, as if they were nested Russian dolls. It took several days for the full explanatory spiel to be trotted out. Considered as a whole, it was nearly as coherent as a Bob Dole speech.

First, Sheriff Arpaio suggested the inmates were just whiners, and the riot (which was only a disturbance, even if it did result in $500,000 in damage) was not that big a deal. The prisoners had become angry because they didn't like the food, or the tents, or some other aspect of their captivity that, the sheriff insisted, was simply not going to change. Life in jail is supposed to be tough. It would stay tough under Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

But, the sheriff explained almost in the next breath, the disturbance might have turned into something dangerous--a real riot--if he had not walked into the lion's den, confronted the angry inmates directly, live on television news, and talked them out of their riotous behavior, single-handed. If the inmates had legitimate grievances, he wanted to hear about them. But he hadn't heard anything legitimate.

Really, though, the sheriff insisted next, the disturbance had nothing to do with the treatment of inmates or conditions in the jail. Blame for this disaster lay at the feet of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, which had cut the budget of the Sheriff's Office and robbed him of the personnel necessary to properly oversee the jails.

Also contributing greatly to the problem, Sheriff Joe Arpaio said, was the county attorney, Rick Romley, who had the nerve to suggest publicly that the disturbance that was not a riot might--just might--have been caused by substandard conditions in Maricopa County jail. That suggestion, the sheriff proclaimed, had endangered lives and fomented rebellion and . . .

And other such lunacy.
There is a reason that inmates at Sheriff Arpaio's jail rioted. They rioted because conditions there are ghastly and guards treat inmates in absolutely barbarous fashion. Those conditions--conditions so shockingly inhumane that they should become the immediate subject of congressional investigation--are unlikely to be changed by Joe Arpaio, because he has made them central to the public relations strategy that has made him the most popular politician in Arizona.

Many of Sheriff Arpaio's most effective public relations gambits focus on the people incarcerated in his jails. These people, the sheriff insists, deserve rough treatment. They deserve to sleep in tents. They deserve to bake in the summer and freeze in the winter. They deserve to wear pink underwear. They deserve to go without coffee and tobacco, to be dragged around on chain gangs.

For public relations impact, Sheriff Arpaio regularly refers to the people inside his jails as criminals. He almost spits the word. Criminals, the sheriff insists, lose their rights. Criminals have done bad things; they should expect to go to jail; they should expect jail to be a truly unpleasant experience; if it is unpleasant enough there, the criminals will make sure they don't have to go back.

I could point out a few facts that put the lie to Arpaio's assertions.
I could point out that two thirds of the 6,400 people in his jails have yet to stand trial. They are charged with crimes, but, legally speaking, are not criminals at all. They are, under our system of law, as innocent as you or I. I could point out that many of those people shouldn't even be in jail to face its unpleasantness; that if Maricopa County followed reasonable procedures--procedures already followed in Tucson and many other cities--there would be thousands fewer inmates in our county jails, and taxpayers would save tens of millions of dollars each year, and there would be plenty of guards to oversee the inmates that remained.

But today I'm not making the argument that Joe Arpaio should be removed from office because his incompetence is costing us all huge amounts of money--even though it's a valid argument.

No, today I'm telling you that Sheriff Arpaio should be taken out of public office because he has crossed a moral line that history has taught us ought never be crossed. Over the past several years, Joe Arpaio's public relations machine has produced a line of rhetoric that is not merely misguided, or unsophisticated, or cynical, or hyperconservative. Sheriff Arpaio's rhetoric is an invitation to barbarism.

I have tried to place Sheriff Arpaio and his jails in the context of international human rights agreements for a reason. You see, those agreements speak to minimum rights. These are not the rights that Americans hold, by dint of their citizenship. These are rights that belong to human beings simply because they are human. These are rights that cannot legitimately be taken away from, or forfeited by, any man or woman, on any continent of the planet. These are rights so basic, so minimal, that they belong as much to John Wayne Gacy as to Mother Teresa.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets