High Goon

According to the law, a person charged with a crime is presumed innocent until he's proved guilty in court. But, in Maricopa County, the presumption of innocence won't protect you from rotting in jail for months.

Only money will protect you from Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Because the law doesn't apply here.

Law enforcement in this county is the stuff of classic Westerns--the kind of movie in which a stranger rides in and finds a town presided over by a sinister dictator who defies the law and runs things his way. Trouble is, we don't have a mysterious stranger riding into town to save us. The closest we have to a mysterious stranger is Janet Napolitano. And, like The Man With No Name in A Fistful of Dollars, she'll take the side that best serves her own interests.

In years to come, Arpaio's administration will be regarded as a barbaric and shameful part of Arizona's history. But, for now, he's free to do as he likes.

And what he likes to do is play at being sheriff. Joe Arpaio is not a tough law enforcer whose rough-and-ready methods upset the soft of heart. He's a clown with a badge, an overgrown child trying to live in real life the fantasy world of the Lone Ranger books he loved in his youth.

He wants a new playpen--a new jail that will cost the county hundreds of millions. It could be argued that even prisoners would vote for that--because the Third World conditions in the sheriff's gulag are partially due to overcrowding.

But we don't need a new jail.
We don't even need the jails we have.
Most of the people in the jails shouldn't be there. Most haven't been convicted of anything. They're presumed to be innocent--just like you and me. Would you accept that the county has the right to lock you in a squalid jail for months on end without finding you guilty of anything?

Arpaio brags that he puts bad guys in jail where they need to be. On July 7, there were 7,062 "bad guys" in his custody. But 5,455 of them hadn't been convicted of anything. They were in jail for being poor--for not having the money to bail themselves out.

Arpaio brags that his jails are so miserable that inmates never want to come back. The reality is that they do come back. His policies haven't affected recidivism even by 1 percent. Even the Sheriff's Office makes no claims for a reduction in crime under his regime. He hasn't made the county any safer, only more oppressive.

And yet this verbose, chuckling child-man, with his strange mixture of innocence and spite, has 85 percent approval ratings. He's allowed to do what he wants, no matter what the law--or anyone else--says.

Last October, a federal report on conditions in Arpaio's jails unequivocally condemned him. Arpaio declared that he had been exonerated by the report, and his flunky, Napolitano, then the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, backed him up. It's uncertain whether she did this because she didn't want to antagonize the most popular politician in the state, or just didn't want to be seen as soft on crime. What is certain is that she colluded in Arpaio's lying.

The federal report was part of a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against Arpaio. But the feds agreed to drop the lawsuit if Arpaio made changes to his regime in the coming six months. Now, the lawsuit having been dropped, the sheriff boasts that he has ignored the law. "Conditions are the same," he says. "Nothing has changed."

He's not kidding. In the county jails, torture and abuse are still the norm. Day to day and week to week, the reports come in--inmates being beaten, denied medication, given food unfit for animals. There are so many lawsuits pending that it's impossible to keep track of them all. Richard Post, the paraplegic who was strapped in a restraint chair and had his neck broken and his anus ruptured. David Dalbec, whom detention officers beat within an inch of his life; the surveillance tape of that event was conveniently lost. Paul Van Noy, beaten and then left to lie in his own blood, piss and shit for 24 hours . . .

And so it goes on. And everyone knows it. And, still, it's allowed to go on.
He has received one slap on the wrist recently. Weirdly, although Arpaio is apparently permitted to torture people in his custody, he's not allowed to deny them access to pornography. Two weeks ago, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Arpaio could not refuse to let an inmate receive his subscription to Playboy.

Not that Arpaio--a purported "lawman"--respects the court. He's refusing to follow the order. It's his playground, and he'll do as he pleases.

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Barry Graham