Friday, September 22, 2017

America's Make-Work Sheriff: The Anachronism of Joseph Arpaio

The name given to the Arizona Department of Corrections expresses society's hope that we can help people who cause problems for others learn to make better decisions. At some point over my 3.5 year taxi driving career I came to appreciate the harm that is perpetrated on people in the name of "justice", and began to think it more appropriate to call this the "Department of Gratuitous Punishment".

Make-work programs are "jobs that have less immediate financial benefit to the economy than the job costs to support." No one is overtly harmed by make-work programs.

Make-work justice uses the criminal justice system to traumatize people who make mistakes, who get caught in the system through 'circumstances', or for 'doing what they gotta do, to survive'. The usual effect of putting people through the Justice pressure-cooker is not to correct their behavior, but to trap them in a destructive feedback loop that frequently prevents them from ever figuring out how to correct their own behavior.

The deposed-but-still-Notorious Sheriff of Maricopa[Note #1], Joseph Arpaio, branded himself "America's Toughest Sheriff" and instituted a cult of personality around his antics. Really he was a tin-pot attention whore [Note #2] whose greatest skill was attracting media attention and outrage for his actions against politically-disadvantaged groups: depressed people who turn to the street pharmacy to ameliorate their physiological imbalances ("drug addicts"), economic refugees, U.S. citizens who happened to be minorities, etc. He was popular enough to get re-elected a few times, was long under investigation for civil rights violations (costing the county millions for his defense and payments in settlements), and was finally ousted in the 2016 election.

The recently-convicted & pardoned Arpaio was really just a figurehead for the United States' failed approach to helping people 'correct' their problematic behaviors. Other states have justice programs which are just as cruel & ineffective as Joseph Arapaio's brand of make-work justice. These programs don't have a firebrand as a figurehead, so they get a pass from regular media attention.

Justice Trauma: The Predicaments of the Accused and Punished

As told by my passengers...

Who are your lifelines? told of the passenger whom I visited at Arpaio's jail, and who talked me into bailing him out. This passenger couldn't get his act together quickly enough to make his next court date, and was soon returned to the slammer. Arpaio's starvation diet and inadequate medical care almost killed him. He developed an intestinal blockage while imprisoned, and suffered greatly before he was finally taken to the hospital. The hospital diagnosed the blockage, provided the needed surgery, then returned the prisoner to the Arpaio Gulag.

Another passenger told me of the time he let his medical marijuana card expire. He was walking around shirtless one day, got mouthy with a cop, and was (supposedly/probably) illegally searched. This passenger's expired MMJ card was of no help for defending against charges of possession of dangerous plant materials (Cannabis), and he was fined $1000. In the future this fellow has it on his record that he is a political criminal who didn't hurt anyone, and a zealous brain-dead prosecutor might use this prior conviction to advocate for prison.

Another passenger had recently been released from a 5-year prison sentence. Her crime was sharing a single opiate pill with a friend. The cop was chuckling as he wrote her up. The passenger had gotten fat on prison food, which is not very nutritious. Several of her fellow inmates died from neglect. (I guess police officers have to be rather disconnected from the consequences of their job. "I don't make the rules, I just enforce them" is the original 'cop-out'.)

Another passenger called for a taxi because she had a flat tire. She was on work-release from Arpaio's tent-city jail, and needed to be back by 6pm so that she could continue to be released for her job. I did some mental calculations, and determined that there was no way to get her there on time without employing the taxicab's teleportation feature (this retired taxi driver strictly obeyed all traffic laws, and tried to respect Science's current edition of the Laws of Physics, except when the passenger needed to get to their destination sooner than the applicable law allowed). We were only a few minutes late. I took note of the lines of prisoners queuing up - apparently a lot of people get work-released from the county's jail.

Another passenger spent almost 2 years in minimum security prison for her 3rd DUI. She cried every day for the first month of her prison term. She got her associates degree while imprisoned, but didn't learn adequate coping strategies: she'd ordered a taxi to go to the drive-through liquor store. I took a few extra minutes of my day giving her a free ride to get her some food to go with her vodka. After about 2 years I turned her over to her kids, who previously hadn't known what to do with her. She's doing fine now, in spite of the Post-Justice Stress Disorder (PJSD). I like to think that I had something to do with her recovery (I haven't written about this passenger before, but have a lot more to say about her experience. Please like my facebook page and/or sign up for the emails to receive notification of future posts).

Tent City: The unintended kindness of Joseph Arpaio

The county jail holds people who are being prosecuted for offenses. Those sentenced to incarceration for longer than a year are sent to a state prison. Stories from people who've spent time in Arpaio's jail tell of prisoners celebrating being transferred out of Arpaio's gulag.

Maricopa County's jails were over-crowded when Arpaio first took charge of them, so Arpaio put up Korean War-era tents to house his prisoners.

Arpaio's Tent-City Jail
Arpaio's Tent City Jail
via Tent City celebrates 23rd anniversary with neon 'vacancy' sign

The "Tent-City" jail was actually an unintentionally-kind gift to the convicted:
Inmates said they liked being outdoors, despite the heat, [...]

On Monday, [Sheriff] Penzone said Tent City “goes against everything I stand for.”

He convened a citizens’ group during his first weeks in office, and its recommendation to close Tent City was unanimous. Mr. Woods said that during its investigation, the group’s most surprising finding was that inmates wanted to keep the jail open, asserting that it was better to stay outdoors than to be confined to a six-foot-by-eight-foot cell, he said.

“What does that tell you?” Mr. Woods said. “It tells you that this negative energy that we’ve gotten since 1993, that we’re so tough on prisoners in Maricopa County, this is how we treat them, that it was false.”

Outdoor Jail, a Vestige of Joe Arpaio’s Tenure, Is Closing (NY Times, emphasis added)
One passenger told me it was easier to cope with heat than with confinement. Those who were merely 'accused' had no access to the benefits of sunlight and the outdoor jail.

Context for the Cruelty of Joseph Arpaio

Wikipedia says that Arpaio worked in the federal government's forever-war on politically-demonized substances for 25 years, from about 1957 to 1982. He came out of retirement to run for sheriff in 1992.

Joseph Arpaio rode the "war on crime" into office. By 1992, the country's failed approach to crime, make-work crime (aka 'drug crimes') & punishment had metastasized and harmful "tough on crime" policies were proliferating like spot fires:
Spotting: Behavior of a fire producing sparks or embers that are carried by the wind and which start new fires beyond the zone of direct ignition by the main fire.
Violent crime peaked in the United States around 1990, but we couldn't realize that was the peak until decades later. One theory is that the gradual reduction of lead from the environment (via removing lead from gasoline and paint) stopped children from getting lead-induced brain damage and thereby prevented them from developing violent tendencies.

Sentencing regimes from other jurisdictions all around the United States were and are just as cruel as those used by the courts in Arizona. California spent 20 years giving people life sentences for petty "crimes", under their voter-approved "3 strikes" law.
As a result of the continuing war on crime in the 1990s, numerous states passed what are known as Three Strikes laws. Between December 1993 and January 1996, twenty-four states passed such laws, which were designed to punish repeat felons. [...]

Background to Three Strikes Law (wikipedia, emphasis added)

Californian voters partially rolled back their 3-strikes law in 2012. Their prisons are still overcrowded, and their prisoners are still receiving gratuitous punishment.

Johann Hari's book Chasing the Scream examines the history of the governments' futile struggle against politically-demonized plants (cannabis, peyote, psilocybin mushrooms, etc), plant-derived substances (cocaine, heroin, etc), and synthetic psychoactive chemicals (LSD, MDMA, amphetamines, etc). As part of his research for this book, Hari visited Arpaio and his prisons and witnessed the the harm perpetrated in the name of 'Justice'. Arpaio still thought highly of his mentor, drug war architect Harry Anslinger.

I'm certain El Chapo and other organized crime kingpins appreciate and celebrate the efforts of Anslinger and Arpaio, for helping to turn these inexpensive plants and chemicals into a gold mine.

Arpaio took credit for circumstances entirely out of his control as crime levels around the county and country fell in tandem with his rule of terror in Maricopa County.

The Growing Appreciation of the Futility of Punishment

The United States incarcerates more persons per capita than any other country in the world. Perhaps this is a curse of affluence: other countries don't have the resources to imprison anyone but the people who are actually potentially dangerous to the well-being of others. 
Successive waves of draconian legislation targeted outsized monsters: drug dealers, repeat offenders, gang members, sexual predators, terrorists and their sympathizers. America’s zeal for punishment has been bolstered not by one or two causes but by a variety of changing factors. Today, perhaps, it persists as much out of institutional inertia as anything else.

[...] had the criminal justice system continued to develop alternatives to incarceration, the United States would not have evolved into a carceral state.

How to End Mass Incarceration  (Jacobin Magazine, emphasis added)
Scholars have identified a few 'pipelines' that help make sure 'enough' people end up imprisoned:
  • lead-to-prison pipeline
  • school-to-prison pipeline / cradle-to-prison pipeline
  • foster-care-to-prison pipeline
  • Mental hospital-to-prison pipeline
It is widely acknowledged that jails are de-facto mental health facilities. In a future post, I intend to develop more about my observations of the the "mental hospital to prison pipeline".

While there are certainly cases where confinement is society's best option for dealing with a problematic individual, it is usually counter-productive to 'punish' people for their own bad luck.

Necessary Justice Reform: moving from 'punishment' to 'correction'

What Maricopa county (and the rest of the country) desperately needs are "alternatives to incarceration" referred to in the Jacobin magazine article linked above. Judges would certainly appreciate having options beyond "fines" and "imprisonment". 

Why you can’t blame mass incarceration on the war on drugs reviews Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform by Fordham University criminal justice expert John Pfaff:
[...] Pfaff argues that incarceration is simply an ineffective way to combat crime, while it imposes all sorts of costs on individuals and society that likely outweigh its benefits.

“It’s true that crime is costly — but so, too, is punishment, especially prison,” he writes. “The real costs are much higher than the $80 billion we spend each year on prisons and jails: they include a host of financial, physical, emotional, and social costs to inmates, their families, and communities. Maybe reducing these costs justifies some rise in crime.”

It’s hard to imagine Americans buying Pfaff’s suggestion that we should accept more crime. But he’s certainly right that prison is an ineffective way of dealing with crime, based on much of the research in this area. [...]

More incarceration can lead even to more crime. As the National Institute of Justice concluded in 2016, “Research has found evidence that prison can exacerbate, not reduce, recidivism. Prisons themselves may be schools for learning to commit crimes.” [...]

This creates a lot more room to enact policies that are less brutal and much more efficient at dealing with crime than prisons are. [...]

(emphasis added)
I had a few passengers skip on their fares - I would have reported them for misdemeanor theft, if I hadn't thought it a waste of time. These passengers certainly wouldn't have disappeared on me if they'd had money to pay their bill. Structural economic adjustments to help those at the bottom of the economy's dogpile would certainly help people better afford their taxi fares.

The Anachronism of Joseph Arpaio

The recent conviction and pardoning of Joseph Arpaio has briefly brought him back into the spotlight. I think it important to recognize that Arpaio's brand of Make-Work Justice is now passé.
An anachronism ... is a chronological inconsistency in some arrangement, especially a juxtaposition of persons, events, objects, or customs from different periods of time. The most common type of anachronism is an object misplaced in time, but it may be a verbal expression, a technology, a philosophical idea, a musical style, a material, a plant or animal, a custom or anything else associated with a particular period in time so that it is incorrect to place it outside its proper temporal domain.

-Anachronism (wikipedia, emphasis added)
Hopefully some day soon Arpaio will be acknowledged as just another 'useful idiot' who spent his entire career hurting people who didn't actually need to be traumatized. 


Note #1: 'Sheriff of Maricopa' is a reference to the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham (from the Robin Hood story)

Note #2: 'Tin Pot Attention Whore' is a reference to Tin-pot dictator, "An autocratic ruler with little political credibility, but with self-delusions of grandeur."


  1. I suppose the words "Don't do the crime if you can't do the crime!" doesn't matter to you? Sure our system is not perfect, sure the justice and police systems need overhauls and reform.

    I am reminded of Mike Brown, his biological father and mother did not care for him nor did his step-dad he was put into care of his grandmother while the three other adults partied and had fun with no responsibilities for their child. Mike grew into a large young man about the size of Hulk Hogan or some other professional wrestler. He got into trouble, and was dealing drugs with employees at a convince store and the owner had no idea Mike was trading pot for cigars. So they called the police. One officer saw Mike and his friend jaywalking and asked them to walk down the sidewalk instead of the street a couple or times or so. Then the report came in about a strong arm robbery and the officer asked Mike to come to his window and talk. Mike went but grabbed the pistol out of the holster and got off a shot in the car but dropped it as the officer grabbed it and Mike's hand bled into the chamber. Mike got a few good hits on the office near his eye and fracture part of the officer's skull. Mike said "You are too much of a pussy to shoot me." as he ran back to the officer who then shot him several times as he feared with his life. Several shots got fired, and Mike was shot in the head and died in the streets before the ambulance came. Of course Mike was a good kid, Straight-A average, volunteered at homeless shelters and churches, and had a plan to repair AC and heating units. Until that evil racist cop murdered him as he had his hands in the air, back to the officer, and said "Don't shoot!". So what is the truth and what is lies? Read here:

    1. People who don't do anything get sent to jail too. The followup to this post is on the subject of "Ordinary Rendition":