Joe Arpaio's Balloon Payments

It hasn't been cheap keeping the Joe Show aloft. Now, his employees, his inmates and the citizens of Maricopa County are paying the price.

"He is responsible for this meltdown," says a Madison Street Jail detention officer who, like other current employees interviewed for this story, wished not to be identified for fear of reprisal (Arpaio has fired several employees in the past few years who he believed talked to New Times).

"But he won't be the one paying. I'll be the one paying. I guarantee you, one of us is going to die because of all his stupid antics."

Allen also would like a jail bailout, but without the "misplaced blame."

William Taylor
For inmates and employees, the howitzer looms as ever-present reminder of Arpaio's priorities.
Paolo Vescia
For inmates and employees, the howitzer looms as ever-present reminder of Arpaio's priorities.

"If we could get with the board and say, 'We can't run the jails so sparsely,' that would be great," she says. "But they don't want to look at the reality of it."


Sheriff Joe Arpaio became an international celebrity by claiming he had created ways to lock up more criminals using fewer tax dollars.

He would put inmates in tents. He would make them work for their rent. He would feed them surplus food, and he would make them pay for that food.

For Americans sick of watching their tax dollars go to house the country's growing inmate population, Arpaio was a welcome panacea.

In a strong law-and-order, tax-hating state with a growing crime rate, Arpaio was perceived as a savior.

And the more groups such as the ACLU or Amnesty International squealed, the more his popularity grew.

But people rejoiced in the spendthrift populist demagoguery without ever checking the books. Arpaio rarely, if ever, stated the full costs of his cost-saving programs. In reality, money was pouring into new bureaucracies to support his anti-bureaucratic programs.

Take his Dollar-A-Day program. With the help of several accountants familiar with both county and Sheriff's Office finances, New Times assessed the genuine cost of this program that Arpaio promised would pump $1 million back into county coffers each year.

In reality, it has cost a minimum of $3 million in additional supplies, additional labor and lost revenue.

The program started four years ago. The idea: Each inmate would pay $1 a day for food. Arpaio would take $30 from them at the beginning of their detention -- enough for one month's food -- then collect again each month.

At a press conference, Arpaio presented the public with what critics call "Joe accounting," his equivalent of fuzzy math. He multiplied the total number of inmates by 365 days and came up with the million or so dollars he would collect and return to the county.

Some staff warned Arpaio that his numbers were way off. And even the newest Sheriff's Office employee knows very few inmates would have $30 a month for such a program.

Inmates are allowed a sort of savings account while in jail. Inmates or their families put money into the account, then draw from it to pay for extra goods or services. Most of the money on an inmate's books goes to buy items from the canteen, the store where inmates can buy candy bars, better soap and other nonessential items.

Under the Dollar-A-Day program, once an inmate was booked into the jail, Arpaio would take $30 from the inmate's account to pay for the first month of food.

In reality, only 16 percent of inmates who enter Maricopa County jails have the money to maintain an account.

That meant, under the program, 84 percent began their stay with a $30 deficit.

Sheriff's Office bookkeepers had never had to keep deficit amounts on their books. They quickly discovered their computerized bookkeeping program wouldn't allow deficits.

So, the program had to be rewritten to accommodate Dollar-A-Day deficits.

It took an $85,000 consultant and several other professionals to make it work. Before Dollar-A-Day was off the ground, it had cost about $250,000 in salaries and consultant fees.

Then another person was hired for $55,000 a year to manage the complicated transaction process created by the new program.

Inmates who do have money also tend to be the inmates who can afford bail or have a decent attorney to get them out quickly.

So, when those who had paid into the system got out early, the jail had to cut them a check. That involved computer time, input time, output time and time to consolidate ledgers. In most of the cases, it cost more money to cut the refund check than was earned in Dollar-A-Day spending.

The canteen, a genuine moneymaker for jail services, suffered. Where the jail had been making $50 per prisoner, it began making only $35.

In all, Dollar-A-Day represented an estimated $3 million shortfall for the jail's Inmate Services, the stated beneficiary of jailhouse moneymakers.

And, instead of killing the program, money was moved from other areas to support it.

Dollar-A-Day isn't the only program whose hidden costs show up in a review of sheriff's records. Nearly every program Arpaio has devised -- and ballyhooed in the media -- bleeds unpublicized red ink.

He says he feeds inmates for less than a dollar a day. In fact, many jails feed inmates with donated surplus foods that keep the price of food per inmate per day below $1.

But that's not the total cost of feeding inmates. Once storage, preparation and other logistics are considered, the price of Arpaio's meals, like meals in jails across the country, is actually much more.

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