Hard-line sheriff seeks ballot lock Crime fighter: Critics say he's created an 'armed Disneyland,' but a lawman with Maryland roots has become a folk hero in Arizona for his emphasis on prisons, posses and punishment.

February 17, 1996|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN STAFF

PHEONIX — PHOENIX -- Cigarettes? No. Recreation programs? No. Coffee? No. Hot lunch? Forget about it.

The inmates in Maricopa County jails complain, and Sheriff Joseph Arpaio is delighted. He's running for re-election after four years devoted to making jails meaner -- and bragging about it.

In a crime-obsessed society that tends to believe that criminals are coddled, Mr. Arpaio, a 63-year-old Republican, is the poster boy for citizens who want prisoners punished, not rehabilitated. And for Arizonans who want to make the streets safer, the sheriff has sworn hundreds of volunteers into posses to fight prostitution, graffiti, even drug dealing.

He's started chain gangs, and he bunks inmates in patched-up Army tents. He's banned Playboy. He's taken commercial television out of some jails and substituted such crowd-pleasing fare as C-SPAN and the Weather Channel.

"Why the Weather Channel? The chain gang ought to know if it's going to be 120 degrees."

Mr. Arpaio replaced hot lunches with cold sandwiches. When inmates protested that the bologna was green at the edges, Mr. Arpaio couldn't have been happier. He made sure reporters heard about it.

He's brought the cost of jail meals down as low as 30 cents each, crowing that other jails spend up to $2. His tightwad menus draw laughter and applause from the civic groups he appears before almost daily. The sheriff figures he saved $100,000 a year just by cutting out coffee. "I have to pay for my coffee. Why should they have coffee free?"

International fame

For his anti-inmate efforts, Sheriff Arpaio has drawn international publicity. ("You didn't see the Penthouse article? It's the best one I have.") Statewide polls show he's Arizona's most popular elected official.

Inmates wear pink underwear, dyed that color at the sheriff's direction after he learned that work-release crews were selling briefs stamped "MCSO" (Maricopa County Sheriff's Office) on the street.

One year, the sheriff says, the county lost $48,000 in underwear. "I had to do something, so I dyed them pink. No one wants to wear pink underwear."

Mr. Arpaio's fans loved the notion, so he began autographing pink briefs and selling them for $10 each, with proceeds going to cover the posses' expenses. At Christmas, he was in malls, signing his name for shoppers who waited patiently to meet him. "Stay out of trouble," he'd write across the fabric. "Sheriff Joe."

With his dumpling face under Brylcreemed hair, Mr. Arpaio is recognized everywhere. At a stop light in Phoenix, which is part of the county, construction crews wave and shout: "Sheriff Joe. Good work."

He used to ride in parades, he says, and hear applause. "Now, it's screaming."

Michael J. O'Neil, head of a Tempe polling firm, says he can explain the Arpaio phenomenon: "Being the toughest cop in town is a politically popular thing to be."

"People are afraid of crime," Mr. O'Neil says. "What they see is a bunch of bad guys out there doing bad things and getting a slap on the wrist. Here's a guy who's being mean to them. So, three cheers."

No matter that the county crime rate isn't falling. "They're not going to live better in jail than they do on the outside," Mr. Arpaio says.

The rhetoric makes critics groan. "Anyone who thinks prisons and jails are country clubs, you go live there for a while," says Louis Rhodes, head of the Arizona American Civil Liberties Union.

Apparently, no inmates have gone to court over bologna sandwiches or smoking bans. "Coffee is not a constitutional issue," Mr. Rhodes says.

"Legally, you have to go pretty far before the courts say [treatment of prisoners] is damaging," says Jenni Gainsborough, the ACLU's National Prison Project.

Popular support

Mr. Arpaio says he knows how far he can go. He presides over county jails, filled with inmates awaiting trial and convicts serving terms of less than a year for such crimes as assault, forgery and prostitution. Longer sentences are served at state prisons.

But his admirers believe that inmates can't be treated too badly. "If it was up to me, I wouldn't give them shoes," says Kathy Schumann, who came to hear the sheriff speak at a recent meeting of the Chandler Kiwanis Club.

"The people are behind me," Mr. Arpaio says. "What are we going to do? Surrender and say we're going to live with crime?"

Onto the city streets and county roads he has sent his posses -- the very crime-fighting bands, authorized under state law, that used to look for cattle-rustlers and horse thieves in the Old West. In Maricopa County today, the posses hunt down deadbeat parents, patrol malls at Christmas and patrol against prostitution.

They're all volunteers who undergo 130 hours of crime-fighting classes. "Volunteerism at its best," the sheriff says, counting Arizona's governor, Phoenix's mayor, lawyers, accountants and the elderly among his 2,500 sworn posse members. Eight hundred members have bought their own guns and uniforms.

'Very dangerous'

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