Life for prisoners in Maricopa County, Arizona, is nasty, brutish and under canvas. Sheriff Joe Arpaio likes it that way, and so do the crime-obsessed voters and politicians of America. Is Michael Howard interested?
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JOE ARPAIO'S motivation is simple. He hates criminals and he loves locking them up. Once he has them behind bars, he considers it his sworn duty to make their lives as miserable and degraded as possible. Since he was elected sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, in 1992, Arpaio has banned long hair, coffee, cigarettes, pin-up girls, hot lunches and weekly films from his jails, and discontinued all counselling, recreation and education programmes. Some 1,100 of the 5,700 prisoners under his jurisdiction are incarcerated in Tent City, a tented jail on the outskirts of the city of Phoenix, where temperatures reach 140 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and below freezing in winter. The inmates work without pay, and eat food that Arpaio calls "garbage".

The sheriff leans across his desk and fixes me with a cold, menacing glare. "Some of your colleagues in the media say that I'm too hard on criminals, that I violate their civil rights, that it's inhumane to keep prisoners in tents when it's 140 degrees. I say that if tents were good enough for our soldiers in the Gulf war, then why the hell can't bad guys sleep in tents?

"Why should some murdering, drug-dealing criminal get special treatment over a patriotic American soldier? You tell me."

Silence hangs in the air for a moment, before the sheriff slams his fist down on the desk and continues: "I don't want criminals to be happy and comfortable in my jail. So it gets hotter than hell in those tents. So what? So the baloney in the sandwiches gets a little green sometimes. So what? If you don't want to be there, don't commit the crime."

Sheriff Arpaio is 63 years old. For much of his law enforcement career, he worked as an undercover narcotics agent. Looking at him now, this is hard to believe, for every molecule of his being screams "COP!" He is built like a barrel, with a jowly stump for a neck, a bulbous nose, a mouth that sneers down at the corners, and short grey hair, greased into a razor-sharp side parting. And he has cop eyes: invasive, guilt-inducing, unmistakable.

With some trepidation, I ask whether he thinks that criminals can be rehabilitated. "Sure I believe in rehabilitation," he says. "I believe in rehabilitation through punishment. I want to make it so bad in my jail that no one will dare to commit another crime when they get out. I want bad guys to have nightmares about my jails." SOME members of the media have tried to dismiss Sheriff Arpaio as a regional aberration, a throwback to the Wild West. This is a comforting thesis for liberal sophisticates on the East Coast, and not without supporting evidence: one of Arpaio's first acts as sheriff was to start deputising armed citizens and organising them into crime-fighting posses, a few of whom ride around on horses, wearing cowboy hats and gold Deputy Sheriff stars. (Arpaio's primary duty is to run the county jail system, which incarcerates people ar-rested within Maricopa County; his department is also responsible for policing the whole county.) But Arpaio is no frontier relic. He was born and raised in Massachusetts, and spent 30 years as a federal drug enforcement agent, rising through the ranks to become a senior administrator; section chief in Washington DC, deputy regional director for Mas-sachusetts, and regional director for Latin America, with an office in Mexico City. On the walls of his sleek, expensive office in downtown Phoenix, there are photographs of Arpaio with Lyndon Johnson, with Richard Nixon, with former president Echeverria of Mexico, and with numerous other foreign dignitaries.

Nor is Maricopa County, Arizona, as wild and western as it might sound. There are a few, embattled pockets of traditional ranching culture left within the county's 9,000 square miles, but most of it is consumed by the sprawling metropolis of Phoenix, the ninth largest city in America (population 2.5 million), and the second-fastest growing (after Las Vegas). With its smog, its 3,000 gang members, its soaring rates of violent crime and general resemblance to a giant shopping mall, Phoenix is better understood by comparison to modern Los Angeles than to the Old West. And the citizens of Maricopa County are a representative slice of the American electorate in the mid-1990s - which is to say that they are gripped by fear of crime and howling for tougher punishment. Eighty-one per cent of Americans think that the courts are "too lenient" on criminals, 75 per cent favour an expansion of the death penalty. Although 22 of the nation's largest cities reported falling crime figures last year, there is a widespread perception that the penal system coddles prisoners; federal prisons are derisively known as "Club Feds", places where criminals lounge around watching television and sculpting their muscles. Middle-class whites are angry about illegal immigration, welfare, the federal government, "the liberal news media" and the rate of taxation, but their primary fixation is violent crime - and the news media credit this mood with sweeping a Republican majority into Congress for the first time in 40 years. Fear of crime, and its corollary, hatred of criminals, are running at unprecedented levels.

It is doubtful if any American hates criminals as fervently as Sheriff Joe Arpaio. "We've got to get back to how we were," he says, "before drugs and gangs and decent law-abiding citizens locked up inside their own homes while the criminals roam the streets. It should be the other way around. Lock up all the bad guys, punish them severely, and let decent people walk the streets in peace. I want to lock up more criminals than any other sheriff or police chief in America. At the moment I'm number six, but I'm determined to make number one."

Talk like this has made Arpaio the nation's pre-eminent celebrity lawman, a veteran of more than 60 television talk shows, and so many newspaper interviews that he has lost count. For him, the high point of all this attention came in March this year when the New York Times dubbed him "the meanest sheriff in America".

"I love that," he says, and for a rare, wistful moment he is sunk in thought. Then he shoots out his forefinger as if it were a gun: "There is a war going in this country! We're losing the war against crime and the only way we're gonna win is to fight harder and get tougher. When they call me mean, I know I'm doing my job right."

THE TOWN of Cave Creek lies in the rocky, cactus-studded hills of northern Maricopa County, a transition zone between the Old West and the New. Phoenix approaches from the south like an insatiable monster, sucking in desert and spitting out shopping malls, car dealerships and suburban housing developments. Cave Creek still has its tumbleweeds and trailer homes, but, even here, the newest businesses are boutiques, art galleries and real estate offices, housed in brand new, air-conditioned buildings masquerading as antique adobe.

This sunny Saturday morning, Cave Creek is staging the Fiesta Days Parade, its annual wallow in the symbolism of the Old West. Rusty old chuckwagons are unloaded off $35,000 flatbed trucks, men dressed in 1860s fur trapper garb dismount from their horses, walk with jingling spurs into convenience stores and emerge with "Super Big Gulp" containers of Coke and ice. Main Street is lined with a couple of thousand people, sitting on deck chairs and happily devouring junk food: foot-long jumbo chilli dogs, Curly Fries, Whoppers, Twinkies, Ding Dongs and Cheez Doodles.

"And here comes Sheriff Joe Arpaio!" cries the announcer. "Let's give him a big ol' thank you for doing such a wonderful job in the fight against crime. We love ya, Sheriff Joe !" Arpaio, wearing a close-fitting tan uniform, rolls along in a convertible Camaro, flanked by mounted posse members in cowboy hats. As he comes into view, the crowd looses a volley of whoops, cheers and coyote howls..."Hooooo-wee! Way to go, Joe! Baloney sandwiches all around! Give 'em hell, Joe!" The sheriff waves dutifully and barks out a few slogans of his own: "Lock up the bad guys ! Put 'em all in jail!.. Look out, I'm just getting started!"

In Maricopa County, Sheriff Arpaio's approval rating runs at 80 per cent, making him by far the most popular elected official in the state, and Arpaio's supporters are constantly urging him to run for governor; indeed, he hears the cry of "Sheriff Joe For President" whenever he encounters a crowd of voters. I ask about his political ambitions, and he says they don't extend past re-election in 1996: "One more term as sheriff and I'll be 69 years old. I think that will be enough."

He has already tried retiring once. In 1982, after serving out his term as head of the Drug Enforcement Agency in Arizona, Arpaio and his wife of 37 years standing, Ava, made a stab at settling down in their adopted city of Phoenix. But he felt as though he was sitting idly by, while the criminals trampled all over the decent and the law-abiding. So he ran for sheriff in 1992, and now, out in the public eye after all those clandestine years, he seems completely hooked on the limelight. "Joe Arpaio is extremely sincere in his hatred of criminals, but he is also a shameless publicity- seeker," says Louis Rhodes, executive director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, and one of the sheriff's few in-state critics. "He's very creative, he dreams up these cute, catchy stunts that achieve nothing at all but let people believe they're living in a Hollywood Western.

"Joe grew up watching Tom Mix. Fifty years later, he's getting to live out his childhood fantasies. He's a comic book figure, with a distorted, simplistic picture of modern America."

BEFORE he banned the weekly film screening in Tent City altogether, Sheriff Arpaio tried a strict rotation of Lassie, Donald Duck and, one of his personal favourites, Old Yeller, a vintage Disney film about a pubescent boy and his faithful hound. Then he found out that the prisoners had been cheering the final scene, when Old Yeller meets his heart-wrenching death. This was more than Arpaio could stand, so he called a halt to the whole cinematic programme. Now he plans to take control of the inmates' television viewing schedule. "I have a cruel and unusual punishment in mind," he tells me with a smirk. "They're gonna get the Disney Channel, and local TV coverage of the county board of supervisors meetings, and that's it."

When I tell the inmates of Tent City this, they raise their eyebrows and shake their heads. "More petty bullshit," says a young black man with gang tattoos. "I suppose this is going to persuade us to abandon a life of crime, huh?"

The tents are green army surplus, staked out in rows and enclosed by razor-wire fences. They are downwind from a ripe-smelling landfill, which tends to counteract the main advantage of open air confinement. Inside the tents, prisoners lie sprawled on their cots, hot, dusty and dishevelled. They sometimes feel, they say, like unpaid extras in one of Sheriff Arpaio's campaign commercials. Every week, they moan, he is down here, acting tough. They describe a typical scene: here comes the sheriff, striding through the rows of dusty tents with a scuttling cameraman by his side. "I'm not afraid of these punks," he snarls, "and they respect me for walking here."

He buttonholes a lanky white youth with bad skin: "How do you like the food, prisoner?"

"It sucks. It's terrible, it's..."

"Good. Maybe you'll think about that next time you're about to commit a crime."

They shake their heads at the memory, and shake them again at the mention of Corn Dog Day, another of the sheriff's famous stunts. Arpaio descended on Tent City by helicopter and took delivery of 40,000 cut-price corn dogs (hot dogs deep-fried in corn batter and served on a stick) - a little past their sell-by date, but still edible. He helped serve them up personally, but, first, made a production of removing the little wooden sticks, lest the prisoners use them as "weapons" - all for the cameras, of course. Then he tossed out a few sound bites about how much money he was saving the taxpayers, ate a corn dog himself, and flew, expensively, away.

The inmates of Tent City use visiting journalists as a repository for their complaints. No exercise, no education, no wages. It's too hot, it's too cold. The tents leak when it rains, the food sucks, a guard put this bruise on my face for no reason. The problem they face is that this plays directly into the sheriff's hands. He wants them to feel abused, and hears their complaints as evidence of a job well done. Not only that, but every time the sheriff devises some new deprivation, his standing rises in the polls. He could come out here and start whipping people while reciting the Book of Revelations, and it would probably boost his approval rating.

It is a frustrating state of affairs for the inmates. "Just because we committed crimes doesn't mean to say we aren't human beings," says Curtis Harris, who is in his late twenties, black, and was convicted of shoplifting. In this he is like most of the prisoners: they are in for petty crimes - drug offences, drink driving, unpaid parking tickets, shoplifting, graffiti tagging, joyriding. One man is serving six days for giving cigarettes to an under-18-year-old. Tent City is a low security county jail, which means that only those committing misdemeanour offences are sent here, for a maximum of one year. (More serious felony offenders end up in the state or federal prison.)

The inmates regard the sheriff's notion of "rehabilitation through punishment" as hopelessly wrongheaded. "You put a man in a corner, and he's gonna come out fighting," says Earl Pollard (mid thirties, black, parole violation). "If you want to keep a man out of jail, you got to put something positive into that man and build up his self-respect. My man over here don't know how to read. Why can't he spend his time here profitably in learning that skill? Seventy per cent of people are in here for drug and alcohol offences. Wouldn't it make sense to have an AA programme?"

The case that Earl Pollard makes falls on deaf ears in 1990s America. Rehabilitation, as an idea, lies scorned and discredited. The belief is that America has been pampering its criminals, though the reality is very different: 260 people have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and 3,000 more are waiting on death row; chain gangs - complete with leg irons and gun-toting guards - have been reintroduced to Alabama; the United States already has a greater percentage of its population in jail than any other country in the world - more than a million people, and the prison population is rising by 40,000 a month. None the less, the voters howl for more police on the streets, more prisons, tougher prisons, and longer sentences. At the same time, of course, they want their taxes reduced.

Sheriff Arpaio offers a way out. A new jail would have cost about $40m to build; Tent City was completed for a mere $100,000. The tents were donated free of charge by the US Army. The land was already owned by the county. The prisoners are served a bare minimum of the cheapest food available. There are no psychologists, counsellors or teachers to pay. And a recently passed state law will allow Arpaio to start charging prisoners for any medical treatment that they might receive while in jail.

It's a winning package, and sheriffs, police chiefs and politicians have descended on Tent City from every state in America. Of course, there is no evidence to suggest that it actually works - 75 per cent of those released from Tent City are back there within a month - but it's cheap, and the voters love it. So, two weeks ago the inmates had to endure the sheriff's grandest coup yet. The Republican presidential candidate, Phil Gramm, arrived to receive his campaign endorsement from Sheriff Arpaio, and got himself videotaped against a backdrop of tents and surly, disgruntled prisoners. Magic.

THE SHERIFF is up and pacing around his office, showing me sackloads of adoring fan mail and listing his international television appearances, "Germany, Finland, Korea, Japan, France, the BBC over there in England, you name it. Violent crime is increasing all over the world," he goes on, "and people are realising that the only thing to do is take the bad guys off the streets and punish them. That's why I'm getting all this attention."

Arpaio has also noticed that what gets all these foreign television crews' attention is his posses, and maintains that this is because "The whole world wants to know how ordinary citizens can help fight the war against crime." When I suggest that, to foreigners, the posse is perhaps just a wacky piece of Americana, he glowers. "My possemen put their lives on the line. They're giving up their free time to try and make this county a better place to live and they're not getting paid a penny for it. They're the kind of people that built this nation."

While Arpaio was planning his 1992 election strategy, he found out that a posse already existed in Maricopa County, to help the sheriff's department on search and rescue missions in the deserts and mountains of Arizona. Arpaio pledged to expand it into a kind of auxiliary police force, and he now has approximately 3,000 volunteer posse members at his beck and call, including a 103-year-old woman (sworn in on The Phil Donahue Show), and the state governor, Fife Symington III. They are divided up into 46 different posses, including the mounted posse and the 400-member "executive posse", which is made up of doctors, lawyers and white-collar professionals, who cruise the South Side ghettos and barrios of Phoenix in their own vehicles. Eight hundred posse members have completed the 60-hour firearms training course, which qualifies them to carry a gun. There have been several instances in which posse members have drawn their weapons; so far, no bullets have been fired.

Louis Rhodes, of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, regards the posses as further evidence of Arpaio's "comic book mentality. What we have here is a lot of middle-aged and elderly men living out their fantasies. They get to ride around in uniforms with their guns on their hips and go out after the bad guys. All they really do is serve a few outstanding vehicle warrants, and scare a few people. It's frilly, showy stuff, but there is a very real potential for harm: they have the power of life and death."

A dozen white males are gathered in the office of Deputy Sheriff Rich Burden. The air is thick with jargon and acronyms. The men refer to themselves as QAPs [Qualified Armed Possemen] and discuss in endless detail the technical specifications of their guns: Glock 9mm semi-automatics are the preferred model. The sheriff's department provides the ammunition - 52 bullets a year - but the posse members are expected to buy their guns, their uniforms, and as much equipment as possible: handcuffs, batons, binoculars, radios, torches, holsters and bullet-proof vests.

Bob Harris, a burly, good-humoured man who collects outstanding car loans for a living, estimates that he has spent $2,300 on equipment so far. He has gone through 256 hours of training, in weapons handling, arrest procedure, legal classes, paperwork, fingerprinting, you name it. He spends nearly every evening out with the posse, and he's paid nothing. Why?

"I want to give something back to society," he says. "I've seen my neighbourhood deteriorate, seen the gangs and the graffiti take over. I'm sick and tired of it and I want to make a difference. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." This is standard stuff. Cass, a retired F- 16 pilot and war veteran, is "sick and tired of gangs and illegal immigrants trying to run our community, and ready to actually do something about it".

The other men here tonight are all retired cops, trainee cops, or ex- military. According to Deputy Burden, this is typical. "Virtually all the possemen I've worked with have had some experience in law enforcement or the military. I've found them to be extremely professional. There's bound to be a few Rambo types come crawling out of the woodwork, but I haven't met any yet." Tonight, there is little scope for heroic adventure. The possemen have been mobilised for Sheriff Arpaio's newly-declared "war on graffiti", launched with enormous, barnstorming fanfare on statewide television. Arpaio was, he announced, sending 1,300 posse members into South Phoenix, to lie in wait for graffiti vandals and other vermin...

With the stink of urine in the air and the crackle of broken glass underfoot, two possemen are hiding in a dark alleyway, scanning a busy intersection with binoculars. They are tense and alert, Deputy Burden's warnings still ringing in their ears: "Repeat. This is a gang neighbourhood. There's a war going on here and we're just a thorn in their side. So safety first, guys. We're going after graffiti taggers, but I also want to keep a look- out for shoplifters, car thieves, muggers, and drive-by shooters."

Parked across the street are two more posse members, men in their sixties with wives and armchairs at home, volunteering their nights away to watch over a neighbourhood they would never otherwise visit. I was expecting a bunch of gung-ho, beer-bellied vigilantes, but these men are earnest, well-trained and dedicated. They are motivated, like the sheriff, by an absolute abhorrence of crime. They cannot - and, by God, they will not - stand for it.

The hours go by, and the neighbourhood remains stubbornly, infuriatingly law-abiding. This is their fourteenth night on anti-graffiti surveillance, and they have yet to lay eyes upon a single suspect. In the absence of real crime, they while away the time by talking about crime. Where does violence come from? Why are 12- year-olds killing each other?

"Maybe it's unemployment and broken homes," says Bob Harris. "Maybe it's all the violence on TV. Maybe it's the decline of morality. I don't think anyone really knows. But right now we've got to get the bad guys off the streets and keep them off. I mean, everyone's a liberal until they become a victim of violent crime. Once that happens, you don't want to live with the fear they'll do it again. You want those guys locked up forever."

I return the next night, and spend another six hours lurking in the shadows. It's Saturday night in the middle of a supposed war zone, but again nothing happens. Deputy Burden is suffering acute adrenalin withdrawal. He hasn't arrested anybody in two weeks, ever since Sheriff Arpaio announced his campaign. He tries to console himself with statistics: "Graffiti is down 70 per cent and I think that's an achievement we can be really proud of. Deterrence is very important. But it would be nice to actually arrest some bad guys."

THE SHERIFF is accepting tribute at a "Take Back The Neighborhood" picnic in downtown Phoenix. The residents are celebrating the posses' most notable achievement to date: the removal of street prostitutes from Van Buren Avenue. For a month, the neighbourhood was clogged with possemen, cruising up and down in their cars and threatening to arrest the hookers. Now the streets are clean, the sheriff and his boys are heroes and the cameras are there to record the whole happy occasion.

"Next we're gonna throw all the drug-dealers in jail, and get rid of all these graffiti vandals that are destroying people's property," an- nounces the sheriff. "We're gonna take back this city block by block, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, until all the bad guys are eating baloney sandwiches in my jail. Look out, we're just getting started!" Coyote howls and whoops of applause. "Sheriff Joe for President!" Meanwhile, the hookers are back pounding the pavement in a neighbourhood five miles away.

It's only to be expected. Like all of Sheriff Arpaio's innovations, the posse has a negligible effect on serious crime. Of course the voters feel better; the belief, gleaned mainly from televised reports, is that Sheriff Joe is giving those criminals hell. The reality is that crime continues, undeterred by armed possemen, Tent City jails, or Sheriff Arpaio's thundering rhetoric. In 1994, there were 244 murders in Phoenix, a rise of 38 per cent from the previous year.

In fact, 1994 was the most homicidal year in Maricopa County's history. 8