Monday, June 4, 2012

Concentration camps in America

via The New Yorker

Bolded emphasis is my own commentary.

Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, known as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”...the voters had declined to finance new jail construction, and so, in 1993, Arpaio, vowing that no troublemakers would be released on his watch because of overcrowding, procured a consignment of Army-surplus tents and had them set up, surrounded by barbed wire, in an industrial area in southwest Phoenix. “I put them up next to the dump, the dog pound, the waste-disposal plant,” he told me. Phoenix is an open-air blast furnace for much of the year. Temperatures inside the tents hit a hundred and thirty-five degrees. Still, the tents were a hit with the public, or at least with the conservative majority that voted. Arpaio put up more tents, until Tent City jail held twenty-five hundred inmates, and he stuck a neon “VACANCY” sign on a tall guard tower. It was visible for miles. His popularity grew.

...Meals were cut to two a day, and Arpaio got the cost down, he says, to thirty cents per meal.
“It costs more to feed the dogs than it does the inmates,” he told me [This article does not include details of the lawsuit pursued by the ACLU, which alleges that prisoners are routinely fed "moldy bread, rotten fruit and other contaminated food"]. ..He limits their television, he told me, to the Weather Channel, C-SPAN, and, just to aggravate their hunger, the Food Network. For a while, he showed them Newt Gingrich speeches. “They hated him,” he said cheerfully. Why the Weather Channel, a British reporter once asked. “So these morons will know how hot it’s going to be while they are working on my chain gangs.”...Arpaio wasn’t kidding about chain gangs. Foreign television reporters couldn’t get enough footage of his inmates shuffling through the desert. New ideas for the humiliation of people in custody—whom the Sheriff calls, with persuasive disgust, “criminals,” although most are actually awaiting trial, not convicted of any crime—kept occurring to him. He put his inmates in black-and-white striped uniforms. The shock value of these retro prisoner outfits was powerful and complex. There was comedy, nostalgia, dehumanization, even a whiff of something annihilationist. He created female chain gangs, “the first in the history of the world,” and, eventually, juvenile chain gangs. The chain gangs’ tasks include burying the indigent at the county cemetery, but mainly they serve as spectacles in Arpaio’s theatre of cruelty.

...Opinion polls found that Sheriff Joe, as he was called, was the most popular politician in Arizona. The Democrats didn’t even bother running a candidate against him in 1996...He got a tank from the Army, had the howitzer muzzle painted with flames, and “Sheriff Arpaio’s War on Drugs” emblazoned on the sides, and rode in it, with Ava, in the Fiesta Bowl Parade....His deputies, particularly his jail guards, seem to have less sense of how far they can go. Thousands of lawsuits and legal claims alleging abuse have been filed against Arpaio’s department by inmates—or, in the case of deaths in detention, by their families. A federal investigation found that deputies had used stun guns on prisoners already strapped into a “restraint chair.” The family of one man who died after being forced into the restraint chair was awarded more than six million dollars as the result of a suit filed in federal court. The family of another man killed in the restraint chair got $8.25 million in a pre-trial settlement. (This deal was reached after the discovery of a surveillance video that showed fourteen guards beating, shocking, and suffocating the prisoner, and after the sheriff’s office was accused of discarding evidence, including the crushed larynx of the deceased.) To date, lawsuits brought against Arpaio’s office have cost Maricopa County taxpayers forty-three million dollars, according to some estimates. But the Sheriff has never acknowledged any wrongdoing in his jails, never apologized to victims or their families. In fact, many of the officers involved have been promoted.

...Other jails get sued, of course. The Phoenix New Times found that, between 2004 and 2008, the county jails of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston, which together house more than six times as many inmates as Maricopa, were sued a total of forty-three times. During the same period, Arpaio’s department was sued over jail conditions almost twenty-two hundred times in federal district court. Last year, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care withdrew the health accreditation of Maricopa County’s jails for failing to meet its standards, and a federal judge refused to lift a long-standing consent decree on the jails, finding that conditions remained unconstitutional for pre-trial detainees...

Remarkably, Arpaio has paid almost no political price for running jails that are so patently dangerous and inadvertently expensive. Indeed, until recently there were few local or state politicians willing to criticize him publicly. Those who have, including members of the county board of supervisors, which controls his budget, tend to find themselves under investigation by the sheriff’s office. Local journalists who perturb Arpaio have also been targeted. The Phoenix New Times ran an investigation of Arpaio’s real-estate dealings that included Arpaio’s home address, which he argued was possibly a violation of state law. When the paper revealed that it had received an impossibly broad subpoena, demanding, among other things, the Internet records of all visitors to its Web site in the previous two and a half years, sheriff’s deputies staged late-night raids on the homes of Michael Lacey and James Larkin, executives of Village Voice Media, which owns the New Times. The deputies arrested both men for, they said, violating grand-jury secrecy. (The county attorney declined to prosecute, and it turned out that the subpoenas were issued unlawfully.)

...Outspoken citizens also take their chances. Last December, remarks critical of Arpaio were offered during the public-comment period at a board of supervisors meeting, and four members of the audience were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct—for clapping. Their cases are pending. ..His deputies conduct extensive raids in Latino towns and neighborhoods. They say they have investigated and arrested more than thirty thousand undocumented aliens. This campaign has landed Arpaio on Lou Dobbs’s show, on CNN, where he is treated as a conquering hero, and has drawn support from ultra-right and racist groups, including neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan...

In the world according to Sheriff Joe, almost every problem in America these days can somehow be traced back to “illegals.” That was presumably why Arpaio seemed so excited to hear the early news about swine flu: it was coming from Mexico. “We gotta get something out!” he said. He meant a press release. The Sheriff gathered eight or nine aides around a big table in his office. “Illegal Immigration Breeds Crime, Disease,” Arpaio suggested. “Can we get masks for the deputies at the tents? ICE”—Immigration and Customs Enforcement—“has masks, don’t they? We should close the border.” The press-release team included Lisa Allen and other members of the media-relations unit; a jail administrator; a public-health specialist; and two deputies from the Sheriff’s human-smuggling unit, who had brought with them a map of Mexico....The public-health specialist said gently, “Surgical masks do nothing to combat this virus.” Arpaio erupted. “This is my press release! I’m the sheriff! I have some knowledge! I’m not just some little old sheriff!”.

...His department’s executive offices are situated, strangely, on two high floors of a bank tower in downtown Phoenix. They command a tremendous view of suburban sprawl in all directions. Outside, it was hot and hazy; inside, it was icy. The Sheriff’s office is the size of a midrange convenience store, its dark wood-panelled walls crowded with memorabilia, including an illustration celebrating the 2001 World Series victory of the Arizona Diamondbacks, with Arpaio’s face drawn bigger than even Randy Johnson’s, as if the Sheriff had been the Series M.V.P. ...The Sheriff took me to the tents the next day...They were all Latinos. They came from Mexico, Honduras, California, Arizona. Some had been in the tents for nearly a year. Their families were afraid to visit them, because they didn’t have papers. They were all facing deportation. The jail food was very bad, they said, and they were always hungry. A slender eighteen-year-old named José Aguilar said that he had lost fifty pounds since being locked up. He showed me a photograph of himself, taken when he was arrested, which had been laminated on a plastic I.D. bracelet, and he had certainly lost weight since then. Aguilar said that he had been in Phoenix since he was a baby, and knew no one in Mexico; his first language was English. I asked if Arpaio had any nicknames in the tents. “Hitler.”

...George Gascón, the chief of police in Mesa—the man whom, Arpaio had bitterly remarked, the mayor was “never going to fire”—has stoutly opposed Arpaio. Mesa is a big town, east of Phoenix, with a population of half a million—larger than that of Cleveland. Gascón, who was an assistant police chief in Los Angeles before taking the Mesa job, three years ago, has had great success in crime reduction in Mesa, using the CompStat crime-mapping model, developed by William Bratton in New York and Los Angeles. But his first challenge in Mesa, he told me, had been to gain the trust of minority communities, particularly Latinos. “They need to believe that you’re ethical and honest, that you’re not the enemy,” he said. In Los Angeles, he had seen what happened when that trust was broken by corrupt officers. No one would talk to the cops, “gang members filled the power void,” and crime flourished. With victims and witnesses, or with people stopped for civil violations, Gascón’s officers do not inquire about immigration status. “We focus on people who are committing predatory crimes.”

...Gascón, a Cuban-American, is tall, silver-haired, soft-spoken. He is a member of the California bar. He declined to discuss Arpaio. He did say, however, “I’m not an open-borders man. I believe we have a problem with illegal immigration. But I want to make sure we don’t throw away the Constitution in the process of solving it.” Gascón made it clear from the start that Arpaio’s military-style immigration sweeps were not welcome in Mesa...Two reporters at the East Valley Tribune, a Maricopa County paper, did a five-part study last year of the operations of the sheriff’s office. They found that, with the diversion of resources to pursuing undocumented immigrants, response times on emergency calls to the sheriff’s office had increased significantly, arrest rates had dropped, and dozens of violent crimes were never investigated. The series won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. Arpaio rejected its findings and, four months after it was published, won reëlection. more...