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Ex-'Bandit' Hired as Spokesperson by Pima County Prosecutor's Office

From left: Joe Watson, Danny Howe, representative Diego Rodriguez, Tim Roemer, Karen Hellman, representative Walt Blackman, and Laetitia Hua at a August 2019 town hall on conditions in state prisons.EXPAND
From left: Joe Watson, Danny Howe, representative Diego Rodriguez, Tim Roemer, Karen Hellman, representative Walt Blackman, and Laetitia Hua at a August 2019 town hall on conditions in state prisons.
Meg O'Connor
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Joe Watson, a former Phoenix New Times staff writer who went to prison for sticking up a slew of Valley businesses, has been hired by the Pima County Attorney's Office as the agency's new communications director.

Laura Conover, a Democrat who ran unopposed for Pima County Attorney in the November 2020 general election, is a progressive who focused her campaign on criminal justice reform. She said in a phone interview that Watson will start his new job on January 4.

"I believe in second chances. We need a community that believes in that, and the community overwhelmingly voted for the reform candidate," she said. "It was an opportunity to put my values into action."

"I’m honored, for sure, to work for Pima County residents and I am very very excited to work for someone who has promised such transformative change," Watson told New Times. 'Hiring me shows her commitment to bringing real reform to the office.

Watson was a prolific and well-regarded writer for New Times — longtime readers may recall his 2005 cover story "Baby Man," which chronicled a Phoenix man who wore little but diapers in public — prior to getting arrested for robbing local businesses in 2007. He had grappled with a severe gambling addiction that reportedly cost him thousands of dollars and left him broke prior to committing the robberies. Watson targeted small businesses or salons where women were working alone and would come to be known as the "Salon Bandit" before he was caught and identified. He pretended to have a gun during the stick-ups, stole money from cash registers, and threatened to shoot a woman during one of the robberies.

He was eventually sentenced to 12 years in prison, during which he freelanced for various publications, like Prison Legal News. After being released in 2017, he became involved in criminal justice reform advocacy by working for the American Friends Service Committee as a media consultant and then communications director. He was also worked for the University of Arizona Poetry Center's Art for Justice project as a community outreach specialist.

Conover said Watson impressed her and other members of her team during interviews for the job as communications director back in November. Watson applied of his own accord, she said. Hiring Watson also aligned with her values of forming a more humane criminal justice system and rehabilitating convicts.

"Joe’s interview just really stuck out," Conover added. "His resume, like the depth of his writing and journalism and his ability to go into the detail of a story, really stuck out. In the last three years he’s being doing really high-quality work for kind of a beloved nonprofit down here."

His recent criminal justice reform advocacy is the kind of work that "makes you want to steal them away from the job they’re doing."

Hiring people as senior staffers who have been convicted of serious felonies and have spent time in prison is fairly unusual for a county prosecutorial agency. But Conover said that his perspective will be an asset for the office and, for instance, help prosecutors humanize defendants.

"I think it could inform us both on how we communicate with and treat victims, and it can inform us on how we view those charged with crimes and where they come from and families and the long-range consequences of what we’re doing," she said.

Watson said that he expects that some prosecutors in the agency might be "skeptical of the formerly incarcerated guy working alongside them." But he's confident that Laura's leadership will help build rapport with wary staffers.

As communications director, which is a new position for the Pima County Attorney's Office, Watson will oversee the agency's website, social media, and work with the press. He'll also be working with prosecutors to adopt more humane messaging, both in the court room and in the media.

"She wants me to help prosecutors in the office use people-first language, to use language that no longer demonizes and dehumanizes the people that they prosecute," Watson said. "I feel that could lead to a real transformation of prosecutors within the system."

When asked, given his stint in prison, if he ever saw himself joining the Pima County Attorney's Office as a senior staffer, Watson partially attributed his rebound to his relocation to Tucson, which he described as a "community that believes in second chances."

"I'm just incredibly fortunate to be here," he sad. "This is definitely not something that I expected."

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