Dead rats in the evening slop. Cells so full of cockroaches that you sleep in a mass of them. No air-conditioning. Overcrowding. A lack of guards to watch the inmates. Violence and mayhem. White supremacists. And enough drugs to slake the appetites of Hermann Goering and Aleister Crowley, were they still alive.
If you've figured that I'm talking about Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jails, you've figured correctly, amigos. In that sense, Shaun Attwood's book Hard Time: A Brit in America's Toughest Jail will not undulate the eyebrows of those familiar with Arpaio's Amnesty International-condemned gulag archipelago.
Still, Attwood's hair-raising and oddly hilarious account of his two years in county stir is a reminder of the conditions that caused the deaths of Scott Norberg, Brian Crenshaw, Charles Agster, and numerous others, resulting in Arpaio being America's most sued sheriff and costing Maricopa County taxpayers more than $43 million in settlements and awards, at last count.
Attwood did his time mostly in Arpaio's Towers Jail after being arrested in 2002 for running a criminal enterprise known as the "evil empire," which dealt ecstasy and meth with more efficiency than a competing drug-trafficking syndicate operated by former John Gotti underboss Sammy "the Bull" Gravano.
Indeed, Attwood's exploits made the cover of New Times in July 2002, in an article that simultaneously caused his mother in England to have a nervous breakdown after she read it online and gave him massive street cred on the inside.
Ultimately, Attwood caught 91/2 years for his crimes, with credit for the two in Joe's joint. He served another three years in state pens in Buckeye, Florence, and Tucson before being deported back to England in 2007, courtesy of a loophole in the law allowing for his removal. He's now permanently barred from ever re-entering the United States.
Although the book, which was recently released in England and is available online through Amazon.co.uk, doesn't deal with his life in prison, he told me via phone from London that the difference between the Arizona Department of Corrections and Maricopa County facilities reminded him of varying pits of perdition.
"It's like Dante's Inferno," he related. "There are different degrees of Hell, and Arpaio's is the worst. People in the jail system who've been in the prison system, they sign plea bargains just so they can get out of the jail and into better conditions."
See, even though the state hoosegow is no coffee klatch, at least the swamp cooler works (unlike at Joe's place), the food is better, and it's actually safer, according to Attwood.
That's right, folks, those convicted of crimes are actually treated better in the state penitentiary than those simply accused of misdeeds and sitting untried in Arpaio's vast incarceration complex.
Those who don't toe the line of one of the race-based gangs that run the MCSO clink can expect to be beat down, or "smashed," in the parlance of the slammer. Brutal cage-match-type fights are commonplace. The loser often ends up carted away on a stretcher.
The detention officers get their licks in, too, usually when the place is put on lockdown and a beefy goon squad is dispatched to pummel someone into pudding. But Attwood makes the point that not all the bulls are beasts.
"Some of them were brutal," Attwood, now 42, said of the guards, "and some of them would talk to us and tell us that they didn't like Arpaio."
I'm guessing that many D.O.'s still hate Boss Hogg and company after the MCSO recently withheld $2 million in back pay from them. The U.S. Department of Labor finally stepped in and forced Maricopa County to cut 'em checks earlier this year. MCSO brass refused to distribute the checks. The county had to do that on its own.
As for the cruelty of some of his fellow inmates, Attwood told me it took a while before he became inured to it.
"The violence was so constant, I couldn't possibly put it all in the book," he said. "You have to get used to heads getting bashed against toilets and bodies getting thrown around."
Particularly menacing are the neo-Nazi thugs who usually head up the "woods," the Caucasian gang that all whites must belong to in the jails — or else.
Anyone who doubts Attwood's accounts of such violence need only look as far as the 2008 death of MCSO prisoner Robert Cotton, the video of which was first shown on KPHO. In it, Cotton's assailant, Pete Van Winkle, stomps on Cotton for 20 minutes before detention officers arrive.
Van Winkle eventually was convicted of first-degree murder. The county ended up settling with Cotton's family for $500,000.
Perhaps more disturbing than the bloodletting Attwood encounters is the fact that Arpaio's jails are awash in every kind of illicit drug imaginable, "keistered" in by the prisoners via their rectums.
The inmates are high all the time. One of Attwood's bunkmates openly deals meth and samples generously from his own supply. Prisoners pass needles around to shoot up heroin, and end up giving each other hepatitis C.
Observing all this had an ironic effect on Attwood, the former ecstasy kingpin.
"During my party years," he writes in the memoir, "I believed drugs were glamorous. But the constant exposure in the jail to round-the-clock drug users crushed that viewpoint out of me. I swore never to do drugs again and still haven't to this day."
The grotesque food — Ladmo bags filled with moldy bread and viridescent bologna, and an evening meal of mystery meat called "the Red Death," which occasionally contained rats that had fallen into the mix — turned the former stockbroker and drug dealer into a veg-head.
He took up yoga, began reading widely, and — most significantly — began blogging by smuggling out posts with the help of an aunt who visited him frequently.
The result was "Jon's Jail Journal," a blog he wrote under a pseudonym to expose the conditions he was witnessing. So far, the blog has received around a million page views. Portions of it were run in the UK paper The Guardian.
The blog became the basis for the book, which will be published in the United States this spring by Skyhorse Publishing. Attwood said most of the reaction to the book and blog has been utter shock.
"They're just astounded that this environment exists in Phoenix, Arizona," Attwood told me. "They expect this from perhaps South American countries, not in America."
As I alluded above, the book is not without a dark sense of humor. Attwood draws on a number picaresque vignettes from his county detention that would make perfect fodder for an HBO series — like Oz crossed with some Alex Cox flick.
Some of the most memorable entries involve a Mexican American kid named Busta Beatz, who keeps a cricket as a pet and tortures mosquitoes.
Then there's a passage involving a guy called Joey Crack who gives his manhood a "Prince Albert" piercing, then gets other prisoners to slam a door on it to bend the metal properly.
And in a scene that could've been right out of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, Attwood's co-defendant and onetime enforcer in his drug empire, Peter "Wild Man" Mahoney, lobs a communion wafer, Frisbee-style, at a priest holding mass for the inmates.
At the end of the book, Attwood thanks Sheriff Joe for "creating such an interesting place to write about." Attwood even sent Arpaio an autographed copy of his memoir. Arpaio recently tweeted that he'd received the book and is reading it.
Attwood admitted to me that he was essentially "scared straight" by the experience but noted that he's the exception to the rule.
"I just saw the youngsters come in," he said. "They get recruited by the gangs, they earn these tattoos — swastikas, lightening bolts, war eagles, stuff like that [for beating people up] — and they would get out and they would just be enemies of society."
What would he say to the Joe supporters who would assert that he earned all the cruelty he could soak up?
"America was good to me," he replied. "I knowingly broke numerous drug laws. And I put myself in Arpaio's jail. I take full responsibility."
But that doesn't let Arpaio off, he insisted.
"Sheriff Joe Arpaio has a legal responsibility to provide minimum conditions under the guidelines set in the federal court system," he said. "He's flagrantly violated those laws for years. I broke the law and he's breaking the law too. He should be held accountable."
SPENCER AND FORDE
Another racist rally in Arizona? I know what you're about to say: "Big whup."
However, the latest in a long line of bigot-filled Tea Parties was notable, but not for the rabble it attracted or for the usual lineup of Mexican-bashing politicos: J.D. Hayworth, Sheriff Joe, and neo-Nazi cuddling state Senator Russell Pearce, among others.
Rather, it was where this nativist swill chose to have its August 15 wingding: on minute-man Glenn Spencer's Cochise County ranch, located on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Not only has old man Spencer been rightfully slammed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ADL for remorselessly rubbing shoulders with white supremacists, he's also played host to a murder suspect.
Her name is Shawna Forde, and she's currently in stir in Pima County for what the authorities say was her part in a 2009 home-invasion robbery in Arivaca that left 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father, Raul, dead.
Now, where, oh where, do you reckon Forde was arrested? Not far from Spencer's property, shortly after she had spent about 20 minutes in his living room using her laptop to send e-mails.
This is all by Spencer's own admission, mind you. He swears he had no involvement with her or her wack-job organization Minuteman American Defense. After all, Spencer's got his own wack-job group, American Border Patrol.
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And yet, Spencer let Forde stay on his land in 2008, in an ABP RV, with her daughter. But, of course, he had no involvement with her.
Why did the local media completely ignore this Spencer-Forde connection in its coverage of the rally? By contrast, they never fail to let Pearce and his reptilian ilk use slain Arizona rancher Rob Krentz's name as their mantra.
I'll tell you why: Because the deaths of two brown people don't equal that of one white man here in Sand Land. And, sadly, my colleagues in the press have acknowledged this by omission.