Live from Arizona: inmates on the Web

Jail Cam: The sheriff says it's a deterrent, but critics call it humiliating.

August 28, 2000|By Mindy Sink | Mindy Sink,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The inner workings of at least one piece of the criminal justice system can be viewed on the Internet 24 hours a day, courtesy of Web cams in the Maricopa County jail in south-central Arizona.

Four cameras make up the Jail Cam (www.crime.com), which lets visitors view detainees being led into the jail in handcuffs, being fingerprinted and booked and being taken to holding cells.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, said he had installed the Web cams as a deterrent because he figured that viewing a holding cell on the Web would convince some people that they never wanted to wind up in one.

Arpaio said he had also set up the Web cams as a response to critics who accused his officers of mistreating inmates. Four years ago, an inmate, Scott Norberg, died at the jail, and the man's family has sued the sheriff's office. Arpaio said one of the cameras on the Web was trained on the hallway where Norberg died. "Now everybody in the world can be the jury if they want to tune into the Web page," he said. "I have faith in my officers and don't mind them being seen."

There have been millions of hits per day, Arpaio said. A private company is paying for the project and the cameras being used were installed as security cameras. "We get hundreds of e-mails from all over the world," the sheriff said, "and 95 percent love it and feel it's a great deterrent."

Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she did not approve of the jail Web cams.

"We think it constitutes punishment by humiliation for people who have not even been charged with a crime," Eisenberg said. "I certainly think that it's not his concern about deterring people in Australia - he has no way of knowing where these hits are coming from."

A disclaimer on the site reminds viewers that a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Arpaio compares the unfiltered viewing with news photographs of crime suspects, or even the televised chase involving O. J. Simpson. "He wasn't even arrested yet," the sheriff said. "What's wrong with it in a jail?"

Maricopa County has the fourth-largest jail system in the United States. The jail books about 300 to 400 people a day on charges from prostitution to murder.

But even though a disclaimer on the site warns - and titillates - viewers, saying they might inadvertently see violent or sexually inappropriate behavior by detainees, viewers might be bored stiff rather than scared straight if several recent visits are any indication.

For the most part, the camera captures images of officers shuffling papers and going about the daily routine of booking suspects.

Arpaio said he planned to make the site more intriguing. "We're trying to get audio," he said. "It's nice to hear what's going on."

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