Is the meanest sheriff in America going soft?
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is known for locking up as many people as possible and making their stay miserable. He's gained notoriety for putting inmates in tents, taking away their cigarettes, coffee and girlie magazines, and feeding them baloney sandwiches and a steady diet of Newt Gingrich.
His latest scheme--dyeing inmate underwear pink to prevent them from being pilfered--has become a public relations and fund-raising success.
But if Arpaio really wanted to make hisinmates miserable--and save a bundle of money--he could emulate some of Arizona's other sheriffs. In 12 of Arizona's 15counties, inmates pay for underwear or, in some cases, go without altogether.
Arpaio sounds like a broken record when he complains about budget shortfalls. Yet he's spent $180,000 on underwear, socks and bras so far this year--enough to put several more deputies on the street.
When sheriff's officials announced theunderwear thefts and dyeing program to a rapt Phoenix media in mid-September, they claimed tohave lost $40,000 in purloined boxer shorts during the first nine months of this year.
Apparently, no reporters thought to do the math. With each pair costing $1.89, the county would have had to lose more than 21,000 pairs--in excess of 75 pairs per day.
Arpaio says the undie expenditures are necessary "because in the long run, it pays off to have underwear for sanitary reasons and everything else."
"I just worry about my county. I don't care about anybody else. So when you say nobody else is wearing underwear, I could[n't] care less whether no other jail wears underwear," Arpaio says. "They wear underwear in my jail, but they're not going to steal it and it's going to be pink. And I'll tell you another thing: If they keep complaining, all the clothes will be pink."
But why would they complain about a frill like free underwear?
Federal court orders mandate many of the county's jail policies, but, according to Sergeant John Kleinheinz, public information officer, that doesn't include giving inmates underwear. If Arpaio weren't so bighearted about his inmates' backsides, he could emulate Yavapai County Sheriff "Buck" Buchanan, who's so mean he provides no underwear.
With the popularity of Arpaio's pink underwear, that's not likely to happen.
Souvenir versions of the boxer shorts have become all the rage. Volunteers in the 2,500-member Sheriff's Posse have sold 3,000 pairs of pink skivvies, grossing $30,000. The proceeds, however, do not goto defray the taxpayer-subsidized inmate underwear; they go to the posse itself.
The souvenir boxers are not what inmates wear. The shorts on sale at the State Fair, Shooter's World and Wal-Mart feature a silk-screened Arpaio signature and "Go Joe" in gold lettering.
Arpaio says the underwear's popularity is further evidence that he's doing what the public wants. "I've got 86 percent popularity, and that's before the pink underwear. I'm probably up to 96 percent now, and the other 4 percent are in jail," he says.
Arpaio says he decided to dye boxer shorts, socks and--soon--thermal underwear when an employee complained that the jail's stock of underwear was disappearing. The dye is expected to make smuggling more difficult and help fight crime in the process. "I'm doing it as a deterrence," the sheriff says. "Maybe, maybe there's a few people out there that hate pink and will not commit a crime. You see? Maybe. If you want to wear Calvin Klein, don't do the crime."
Deputy Chief Larry Wendt insists that underwear theft is a real problem, but admits that the reasons for it are probably less sensational than first reported. "When someone is taken into custody, he's likely to be in a pretty disheveled state, do you know what I mean? We take his clothes, seal them in a plastic bag, and issue him jail clothing. That sealed bag of clothes may sit for days, weeks, months before it's given back to the inmate when he's released," he says.
It's not hard to see why an inmate might want to walk back into freedom with a fresh pair of shorts.Maricopa County might remedy this problem by laundering the inmates' clothing before sealing it in a plastic bag. That's the policy at the Los Angeles County Jail (the nation's largest), where jailers laughed when told that underwear thefts were a problem here.
"That's an interesting idea," says Wendt when told of L.A.'s policy.
Wendt acknowledges that it's difficult to determine exactly how many pairs of boxers are being stolen when the jail has spent a total of $180,000 on underwear for both male and female inmates so far in 1995. Some of those purchases were intended to replace pilfered panties, boxers and bras, but there's also a constant loss simply because of the nature of the place. Jail is tough on underwear, if not on crime itself.
"I expect about $12,000 per quarter just in wear and tear," Wendt says.
In that nine-month period, the jail spent about $27 for each of its 5,000 male inmates to keep them in boxer shorts, socks and thermal tops. For each of its female inmates, the jail spent about $75, or almost three times as much, for panties, sports bras and nightshirts.
Theft of the women's garments has also been a problem, Wendt says, especially of the bras. But the same solution won't work. If a woman is caught leaving the jail with a pink bra, who's to say it isn't the one she was wearing when she was arrested? With a little checking, a jailer could tell the difference, but the sheriff's office says bra inspections would be a drain on manpower it can't afford.
Sounds like a job for the posse.
In the meantime, the sheriff's brain trust is trying to figure out which color of the spectrum women would feel as embarrassed wearing as men are supposed to feel about pink.
The sheriff is surprised that anyone might be critical of the project. "From the day I took office," he says, "I built up the toughness in jail. So I think that's why I was able to get by with this. And quite frankly I have received no negatives from the news media. No one from the news media said, 'What are you doing? This is crazy.'"
Not everyone's amused, however.
"Do they have one substantiated case where an undercover cop bought a hot pair of skivvies? I doubt it," says Christopher Johns, an attorney in the county Public Defender's Office. "Do I think the [smuggling for sales] happened once or twice? Yes. Do I think it was a problem that required pink dye and Joe's face on the front page? No."
Arpaio's policies are popular, Johns says, because they feed a widespread paranoia about crime, but they do so, he adds, without addressing real solutions to the crime problem itself.
"Pima County is screening people better," Johns says. "Joe expounds on this idea of saving money, but--lawsuits for mistreatment aside--is he really saving us money if he's putting more people in jail who shouldn't be there? The jail is a taxpayer resource that needs to be used wisely. He's wasting our money."
Several rural jailers pointed out that part of the public's passion for tougher incarceration may be fed by a confusion over the difference between "jail" and "prison," terms many people use almost interchangeably. Most of the inmates in Arpaio's jail are awaiting trials, and, presumably, are innocent until proven guilty.
Graham County Undersheriff Mike McEuen says he doesn't see the point of making his jail a miserable place: "In most cases, we're just holding inmates until their cases are adjudicated," he says. "Others have been given short sentences of six months, for example, and are serving time. But they're still human beings.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- As Arpaio's Trial Approaches, More MCSO Shenanigans Pop Out of the Woodwork
- Hardcore Pot Activists Want Marijuana Legalized in Arizona Under Their Terms — or Not...
- More Storms May Hit the Valley as Thousands Continue to Reel From Monday’s Microburst