Arizona Jail Riot Raises Questions of Sheriff's Tough Tactics

Serving green bologna sandwiches to inmates and making them do hard labor has given Joe Arpaio the reputation of "America's toughest sheriff."

But now, the sheriff of Maricopa County, which borders metropolitan Phoenix, is under investigation by the US Justice Department for alleged violations of prisoners' civil rights at county jails.

The latest episode to prompt investigation came Sunday, when prisoners at Sheriff Arpaio's tent-jail facility in southwest Phoenix went on a three-hour rampage to protest such conditions as overcrowding and rats climbing over them while they sleep. The rioting left three sheriff's deputies and half a dozen inmates with minor injuries.

In the past few years, Arpaio has become a national lightning rod on the debate of how to dispense punishment. To his supporters, Arpaio is a tough-talking hero who makes prison life less comfortable, denying coffee to inmates and even requiring them to wear pink underwear. To his detractors, including the county's top prosecutor, he is a populist whose strategy was bound to cause trouble.

"Those of us in law enforcement were not surprised this happened," says County Attorney Richard Romley.

Arpaio's techniques have not gone unnoticed by the Justice Department, which has been conducting an ongoing investigation into charges of civil-rights abuses at the three Maricopa County jails he supervises.

The investigation centers on allegations of poor health care and excessive force at the facilities. Earlier this year, the Justice Department in a letter to a Maricopa County supervisor called the use of excessive force by detention officers "especially and unacceptably prevalent" at the tent city and two other jails.

Arpaio met with some of the prisoners after the Sunday riot to hear grievances, and in a Tuesday meeting he promised to provide better medical service and more trash cans and portable toilets.

Yet Eric Sterling, the director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a Washington think tank, says Arpaio's tactics go beyond proper incarceration and set the stage for violence.

Harsh treatment of inmates may ultimately make matters worse not only for detention officers who guard the facilities, but for inmates once they are released to the outside world, Mr. Sterling adds. "The approach is not only bad penology," he says, "it's bad in terms of thinking about the kinds of changes you want to take place in the thinking and in the lives of these people when they are released."

Arpaio, meanwhile, says he will not change them in the face of criticism. To do so, he says, would spark new rioting each time a "coddled" prisoner becomes unhappy over jail conditions. "They're in jail. This isn't a hotel," Arpaio says. "They have to give up some rights - I think."

Nationwide, overcrowding at correctional facilities has become more common. Funding has not keep pace with a doubling of the prison population over the last 10 years, largely because of tougher sentencing guidelines.

In the event of a riot, detention officers "are the first target for being taken hostage or being injured in the event of a riot or other kind of unrest," Sterling says.

"It's in their professional interest ... that the institution be well run," he says. "And being well run means that security is maintained and that also the basic human needs of the prisoners are met."

But Arpaio sees it differently. Writing in a law-enforcement publication last year, he said, "The public perception is that criminals have dominated and manipulated the system that was created to punish them. The phrase I have heard over and over is this: 'Prisoners should have no rights at all.' "

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