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Barbarism As a Public Relations Strategy

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Something felt awful and familiar as I strolled toward the set of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's latest made-for-TV movie (Charred Riots of Fire, MCSO Studios, 1996) when it began shooting at the Durango Jail a couple of weeks ago. The unsavory sense of deja vu had something to do with the sheer number of vehicles sent to quell the riot (which was, the sheriff insisted, a disturbance, not a riot). Eight blocks of Durango Street were filled solid--curb to curb--with police cars and fire trucks and ambulances and mobile command centers and shiny white television news vans with microwave towers stuck excitedly into the sky.

But there were other reminders of some past cinematic media event that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Dozens--no, hundreds--of police and other paramilitary types milled about, trying to look important while they busily did nothing. A semicircle of television cameras on tripods documented a column of black smoke rising behind wire fencing in the desert. Four helicopters whirred above the scene, two circling, two hovering at fixed spots.

But it wasn't until I tried to wander from the officially approved mass-media reporting location that everything snapped into place, and I suddenly realized why this event felt so familiar. Wandering, you see, was not allowed. Moving, looking or interviewing without official approval was gently, pleasantly but strictly verboten.

"We're trying to stage you guys over there," one of the sheriff's flacks cooed--and I recognized the schmooze immediately. It was that particular sort of professional containment that whispered: I'm not your adversary, Mr. Important Media Man, I'm your friendly public information officer; I know how difficult your job is, even if your bosses don't; I'll move heaven and Earth to help you get everything you need before deadline; you just need to help me this one little bit by staying over here with these other incredibly interesting and Important Media Men and Women--which is really where you want to be, anyway, isn't it?

At that moment, I remembered the past cinematic event full of vehicles and helicopters and wire fences and uniforms where I had encountered this type of media schmooze. I realized that Sheriff Joe Arpaio had adopted the media-management techniques the U.S. military had used so successfully during its last major production for the big screen (Desert Storm, The Video Game, Pentagon Pictures, 1991).

If Joe Arpaio has a genius, it is in the publicity arena. Just five years ago, this particular Joe was no one, politically speaking, a hustling schmuck with a two-bit travel agency that made its money grubbing around the seedy edges of the local government contracting game. Now, Arpaio's PR machine has made him into "America's Toughest Sheriff" across the country and around the world. That's a hell of a transition in a damn short amount of time. There aren't a half-dozen politicians who have accomplished anything like it in the past decade.

Call your friends in other states. If they don't immediately recognize the name Arpaio, they'll know who you're talking about as soon as you mention posses, pink underwear, chain gangs or the Tent City jail. And if your friends outside Arizona think this Sheriff Joe guy is a few leaves shy of a full tree--well, that's not exactly outside this sheriff's media plan, either. The more that those foreigners--especially left-leaning reporters from evil places like New York and Washington, D.C.--question the hard justice served up by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the better he'll seem to the solid citizenry of common-sense Arizona. At least, that's the political calculation Arpaio seems to have made, and his figuring has been on the mark so far; he just ran unopposed for reelection because the Arizona Democratic party is afraid of him, and polls generally put his approval ratings in the stratospheric 70 to 80 percent range.

Arpaio's popularity would not disturb me if I simply thought that his media image was inconsistent with reality, that the true nature of Sheriff Joe was seedier, stupider, more cynical than the straight-talkin' tough guy he plays for the public. After all, a significant portion of all politics is subterfuge; politicians are artists of the possible, not the ideal; I am a big fan of the inspired public relations gambit; and Joe Arpaio's PR scams are among the most inspired I've ever seen.

So I don't disapprove of Sheriff Arpaio because he manipulates the media effectively. I admire his skill as a manipulator. I don't disapprove of Sheriff Arpaio because his policies are simplistic and unlikely to reduce crime. The day I start expecting the county sheriff--any county sheriff--to be a sophisticated bulwark against crime is the day I make reservations at the poshest loony bin the New Times HMO will fund. I don't even dislike Arpaio personally. He's a charming guy, in his own bluff way.

No, I think Joe Arpaio should be removed from office because he has used his public relations skill to create an image that encourages his employees to engage in behavior that can be properly described by only one adjective: barbaric.

I spent a full day last week looking over international human rights agreements to see how they might apply to what has been happening inside Maricopa County's jails in the past few years. There are a lot of these agreements; they vary widely in the quality of their thinking and prose. Some are lawyerly enough to please a United Nations subsecretary. (See "Principles of Medical Ethics relevant to the Role of Health Personnel, particularly Physicians, in the Protection of Prisoners and Detainees against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.")

The titles of others have a simple, timeless quality, viz. the "Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners," or the "Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners."

All of the agreements I reviewed seem to say that conditions in Maricopa County jails, as described by an official U.S. Justice Department report, constitute serious violations of international human rights standards--the types of violations the United States government is always attributing to the North Koreans or Cubans or Iraqis or mainland Chinese. Under the Geneva Convention, it seems, even prisoners of war are supposed to receive better treatment than U.S. citizens have been getting at Sheriff Arpaio's jail.

I know that international law is a tricky subject, though, so I called an expert on these situations. I called Amnesty International.

Over the phone, William Schulz, the executive director of Amnesty International U.S.A., seems a careful, precise person. In fact, he agreed to comment only if I made it clear that his remarks were based on the assumption that the Justice Department's conclusions about Maricopa County jails are true. So let me make it clear. Neither William Schulz nor Amnesty International has studied Maricopa County jails. It is the Justice Department that has investigated Sheriff Arpaio's jails and found them revolting. (That investigation is continuing.)

Although the Justice Department sent its initial findings on the jails to Maricopa County officials in the summer, for some reason the most interesting findings are seldom discussed in daily newspapers. I don't know why this is; perhaps editors more sensitive than I think details of the report will spoil breakfast for weak-stomached subscribers. They may be right.

For whatever reasons, Schulz knew Sheriff Arpaio's name and had read of the recent riot at Arpaio's Tent City jail, but was unaware that the federal government had made an official pronouncement that Sheriff Joe's detention officers had been behaving barbarically. So I recounted a modest amount of the barbarism for him. It included:

* Strapping inmates in chairs and using electrical stun guns to shock their testicles and other body parts.

* Handcuffing prisoners, then punching and kicking them.
* Hog-tying inmates--that is, cuffing their hands and feet behind their backs and then tying the cuffs together (from time to time, the report notes, this method of restraint kills the "hog").

* Letting seriously injured and sick inmates languish days or weeks before they are seen by doctors.

Although I could tell he did not like what the Justice Department had reported about Arpaio's jails, Schulz responded to the report in measured tones.

"There is absolutely no question that what the Justice Department has described constitutes very serious violations of human rights and human rights covenants to which the United States is signatory," Schulz said.

I thought I understood his point ("I am so horrified by what I just heard that I can only speak in extremely formal language"), but I wanted to be certain. So I asked a question so direct it was almost rude: What would Amnesty International do if it learned that prisoners were being--say--strapped down and shocked in the nuts somewhere outside the United States?

"Those practices are something Amnesty has denounced in other countries," Schulz responded.

I waited a moment, hoping he would come up with an example, and he did: China. Amnesty International vehemently protested, Schulz recalled, when the Chinese government used electrical shock on the genitalia of defiant monks and nuns in Tibet. The Chinese communists didn't target only genitals, Schulz explained; they sometimes hot-wired the ear canals of religious men and women who were misbehaving. (Or was it misbelieving?)

After a few seconds of imagining what high-voltage electricity would feel like inside of my ear, I changed the subject slightly: If the Justice Department report on Maricopa County jails were accurate, it seemed to me that Sheriff Arpaio's jailers might be judged to have engaged in torture. Could that be? Official torture in Phoenix, Arizona?

But Schulz could not help me with this question.
Now, if the Justice Department report were correct, jailers here had clearly violated the human rights of inmates at the county jails. After all, Amnesty International's most recent annual report criticized South Africa, Egypt and Tunisia, among other nations, for the use of electric shock on restrained prisoners.

So there really couldn't be much doubt: Maricopa County detention officers had subjected inmates in Phoenix jails to the type of cruel, degrading treatment that the nations of the world had banded together to denounce as inhumane.

But torture . . . well, Schulz insisted on being careful about using that word. Whether mistreatment of prisoners constitutes torture, Schulz explained, "is a subtle and subjective judgment." Generally speaking, he said, an activity cannot be considered torture unless it causes an extreme level of pain and is repeated in a regular fashion or is aimed at a particular purpose--extracting confessions, for example.

Shocking the genitals of restrained prisoners would certainly cause the requisite pain, Schulz said. So could punching or kicking them. But the Justice Department report gives no clear indication as to whether the shocking of the testicles of restrained inmates in Maricopa County jails has been systematic, or aimed at a general purpose. Neither does the report say how regularly inmates have been kicked and punched while under restraint.

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.

Electric shock, beatings, the withholding of medical care--these are never proper punishment, no matter what the crime. These are punishments the nations of the world agreed to ban in the wake of the Holocaust.

Joe Arpaio has concocted a series of sophisticated public relations campaigns based on the thinly veiled proposition that the human beings in the Maricopa County jail system are enemies of society. These slick campaigns have made him the most popular politician in Arizona, so popular that many observers expect him to run for governor. These PR campaigns have also created a climate in which human beings could be considered as less than human, a climate that has fostered barbaric mistreatment of jail inmates.

Deaths and disorder at the county jails have given Sheriff Arpaio repeated opportunities to publicly denounce inhumanity by his officers, to call for an end to the barbarism there. Time after time, he has waffled, and equivocated, and, ultimately, refused to make that denunciation. By those refusals, Joe Arpaio has marked himself as a dangerous man--and one who has no legitimate place in public leadership.


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