Talking with Joe Arpaio: America's toughest sheriff

Besides making his inmates wear pink underwear, Arpaio is best known for programs like his tent cities, chain gangs, and bologna sandwiches


By Carol McKinley

Seventy-eight-year-old Joe Arpaio is in his fifth four-year term as Maricopa County Sheriff. He's running for a sixth term in 2012; but, his most ardent supporters won't stop at local office.

As of this writing, the Facebook page, "Sheriff Joe Arpaio for President in 2012," had an enthusiastic but relatively small number of "friends" at 600. A different page, called "People Against Sheriff Joe Arpaio" has over 100,000 supporters. Though there have been calls for him to resign, he says he won't do it.

Arpaio has plenty of critics. He is currently the subject of FBI, United States Department of Justice and federal grand jury investigations for civil rights violations and abuse of power. He's also the defendant in a federal class action lawsuit for racial profiling. He's cost Arizona taxpayers millions of dollars in lawsuits.

Ironically, the "Toughest Sheriff in America" boasts that he's saved taxpayers much more with his controversial policies. For example, besides making his inmates wear pink underwear, Arpaio is best known for programs like his tent cities, chain gangs, and bologna sandwiches.

He revealed his latest cost-saving measure to CorrectionsOne; and it is guaranteed to be another hot button issue. He wants to charge incoming prisoners to his county jail a dollar a day for food. Arpaio says it costs fifty cents a day to feed them, so he intends to make a profit. The plan? To confiscate any pocket money prisoners have upon booking, and put it toward their meals.

CorrectionsOne: What's on the menu today?
Arpaio: They only get two meals. Brunch and a hot meal for dinner. I make sure they have 2500 calories a day. So at 10 a.m, they'll have a sandwich, baloney or peanut butter, and a piece of fruit. For dinner tonight? I don't know..we probably have some kind of chicken casserole. They (the inmates) call it slop.

CorrectionsOne: I've read you serve moldy fruit. Is that true?
Arpaio: We pick the fruit. We send inmates out to farms to pick it. They may think it's moldy, but it passes the food inspections. As far as the food. They don't like it. So what?

CorrectionsOne: You're called "America's Toughest Sheriff." What does that mean?
Arpaio: The media made that up. They started calling me that. What? Do I want to be "America's Nicest Sheriff?" I do my job. I lock people up.

CorrectionsOne: What in your opinion is the biggest problem within America's prison system?
Arpaio: Overcrowding.

CorrectionsOne: Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled prisoners are human beings and are entitled to the most basic human rights while incarcerated. Do you consider your prisoners human beings?
Arpaio: Of course they're human beings.

CorrectionsOne: But you've had civil rights complaints leveled against you. For instance, critics say keeping inmates in tent cities in the desert heat is not humane.
Arpaio: We don't run a Hilton Hotel. I slept with my inmates twice in the tents. We have service people fighting for our country living in tents. Why can't they (the inmates)? Those tents were free! They're Korean War issued tents. It costs $80 to 90 million dollars to build a jail, so I've saved taxpayers millions!

CorrectionsOne: Will you enforce the Supreme Court's decision?
Arpaio: There's nothing to enforce. This doesn't pertain to me. I'm not gonna change anything.

CorrectionsOne: Do your prisoners like you?
Arpaio: It's a love/hate relationship. If only my prisoners voted for me in the next election, the polls say I would win. If I run such a bad jail system, where's my riot? They riot everywhere! I've just had one riot in eighteen years, in the tent city in 1996.

CorrectionsOne: Just last month, you arrested three of your own staff for taking part in a drug smuggling ring. One of them is accused of sneaking information to drug cartels from your command center. Another of the three was eight months pregnant with the child of a drug lord. Are you devastated by the corruption in your own department?
Arpaio: We're the ones that did the investigation and I'm glad we caught them. I don't like it, but I'm not devastated. More than anything, I'm disappointed. And I'm worried about what a situation like this can do to compromise the safety of my deputies! Here I am busting illegals and we end up having a deputy on the inside giving them (human smugglers) information? I have three contracts on my life from Mexican cartels. But I don't worry about myself.

CorrectionsOne: If one of your relatives got arrested and booked into your jail, would you be okay with that person being locked up in your facility?
Arpaio: If my son gets busted, he's gonna have to eat a baloney sandwich, just like everyone else.

There is no lack of Joe Arpaio news. He says no one ever talks about his positive deeds, like a drug rehabilitation program which has treated nearly three thousand inmates since 2007. This Christmas, he held a singing contest for his inmates on YouTube. The person who sang the best Christmas carol received a holiday dinner.

For the curious, there is also a Joe Arpaio Twitter site, which he mistakenly calls "Tweeter." "I don't have a computer," Arpaio says. "I have people who handle all of that for me. I still write on a Smith Corona typewriter."

I would have liked to ask Arpaio a few more questions, but a CNN crew was setting up cameras in another room to start an interview with former New York governor, Eliot Spitzer for his talk show "In the Arena."

"Hey, come to Arizona and I'll give you a tour of the tent city," Arpaio promises. "But I gotta go. CNN's gonna skewer me. If it was Fox, they'd applaud me! You should watch. It's gonna be on at 8 pm Eastern, 5 pm our time tonight."

I promise him I'll check it out. Because whether it has to do with tent sleepovers, making inmates pay for their own food, or pink underwear, you never know what Sheriff Joe is going to come up with next.

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