Meet America's toughest sheriff

Joe Arpaio is the scourge of prison reformers. He doesn't just punish his inmates – he humiliates them. Why? Because they've broken the law, he tells David Usborne
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The Independent US

Joe Arpaio is delighted to be called "America's toughest sheriff". It's right there in the bio-blurb his spokeswoman hands a reporter when they first meet him. After all, his willingness to inflict assorted degrees of deprivation and humiliation on his citizens gone astray is what gets him elected over and over again.

"I want to thank you and the people of England. Going back in history, you invented the sheriff thing," he says after a brief tour of the memorabilia in his 19-floor office in downtown Phoenix, including a faux-Wild West billboard proclaiming, "No cigarettes, movies, coffee, girlie magazines". It is meant as a tribute to "Tent City", the jail he first built 16 years ago where prisoners are stacked under canvas.

One of the most infamous prison facilities in America, it is his pride and joy. Aware I have just been on a tour, he wonders what I thought. Hard to answer that honestly – I am his guest – especially on a day when it is 45C in the shade. But yes, I had seen the tents and the mandatory pink underwear – and pink sheets, socks, towels and handcuffs too. But, wait. How about that Sheriff of Nottingham of yours? "Without you I wouldn't be here." So it's our fault.

Arpaio is the Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, which encompasses Phoenix. And while four million-odd voters have chosen him over Democrat opponents five times – because of his no-compromise stance on crime-fighting and, more recently, on expelling as many illegal immigrants as he can – the list of those who wish he were gone is lengthening. They include the demonstrators outside his office, proponents of immigration reform, including members of the Obama administration, illegal aliens trying to survive this side of the border, and even the Mayor of Phoenix, who accuses him of instigating a "reign of terror".

Unimpressed also are the inmates in his prisons and especially Tent City, with its sprawl of army tents dating from the Korean War. "I am here because I committed a crime," says Elijah, who is lying flat on the sweat-soaked mattress of his bunk reading pages of the Old Testament. "This is my punishment." But what do they say of Arpaio in here? Elijah glances furtively at the two guards who are my escorts. "They don't have good things to say about him, I can tell you that."

The genius of Arpaio at Tent City has been his grotesque sense of gimmickry. My escorts, two guards, David Heathcock and Ray Ortiz, are quick to show off the old guard tower, condemned these days, but still boasting a neon motel sign flashing "Vacancy", meant, apparently, to underline that this sheriff always has room for more reprobates, overcrowding or no. "At Christmas we decorate it with lights," notes Mr Heathcock, before escorting me to the MASH unit. This is a hospital in the middle of Tent City for animals rescued from crime scenes. It seems they are being pampered, at least compared to the humans. Horses, pigs, a few goats and one donkey while away the day in the shade, cared for by inmates.

Only a few weeks into a 12-month sentence, Elijah – he prefers not to give his other name or discuss his conviction – is familiar with the Arpaio whimsy too. He knows that if he touches the metal frame under the canvas of his tent roof, the skin of his palm will blister. He knows better than to poop in the outside Portaloos "once that stuff starts stewing", notes Mr Heathcock the guard – and to do it in the one solid building that includes canteen and medical facilities and a "cool area". And he has got over having to wear the striped uniforms like you see in the old gangster movies with "Sheriff's inmate" printed across his shoulders. They are better than the pink boxer shorts.

He, like every prisoner, also well understands the costs of breaking the rules, including being assigned to one of Arpaio's much-documented chain-gangs scrubbing graffiti or raking litter, ankles shackled to other ankles. Men allowed out on work assignment must strip on their return, then squat and cough in case of contraband concealed in cavities. Contraband, by the way, also comes via friends and relatives in the visitors' car parks armed with catapults. One recent Thanksgiving, an entire cooked turkey flew over the barbed wire.

"Sheriff Arpaio is real serious about animal cruelty," Mr Heathcock murmurs as we approach the MASH area. The "bleeding-heart" critics, they have it all wrong. "The media twists it all up. He is not the monster he is made out to be." His partner, Mr Ortiz, who has just said without irony how much he enjoyed a couple of days camping with his family the previous weekend, concurs. "It's not like we drag these people off the streets for nothing. Everyone in here broke the law. I know I'm doing the right thing."

He and Mr Heathcock earlier directed my gaze to a poster displayed in the prison's main lobby area, showing US soldiers sleeping beside an armoured Humvee somewhere equally hot. "The next time you want to complain about Tent City, stop! Instead, think of how hard life is for our soldiers in Iraq," it proclaims.

Toughness and patriotism make a powerful brew, especially here in the Southwest. But if Arpaio is given love by the voters, none is lost with many of the other elected officials here. He is thoroughly annoyed to learn of my squeezing in a visit with the Mayor, Phil Gordon. "What Mayor?" he snorts, leaning menacingly across his desk, before suggesting that Gordon is a "liar" and not fit "to run a dog pound". He points at the neighbouring office tower, City Hall, where Mr Gordon works. "I can see his toilet from here".

Mr Gordon greets this reporter even though he is about to leave for Washington, where, he points out, the sheriff is under both civil and criminal investigation for alleged racial profiling and civil rights abuses. The pity, he says, is that, until two or three years ago, Arpaio was at least in line with most other law enforcement departments in focusing more on dangerous criminals than illegal aliens.

But that has changed now. In the last several weeks, the sheriff has conducted a series of highly publicised and aggressive sweeps of areas with high concentrations of Hispanics – legal and illegal – which he prefers to call "crime suppression" operations. Anyone with so much as a cracked rear brake-light is stopped and detained. With these tactics, he says, his men have scooped up 28,000 people who turned out to be in the US illegally.

"If you look at the numbers, none of them add up," insists Gordon, who deplores the sweeps. "It's an unbelievable misuse of resources," he argues. "It has created a reign of terror and fear on the part of a lot people of colour. Whether they are brown or black, legal or illegal they are afraid to come forward to identify criminals even if they are victims of crime. Across the civilised world, the rule has always been that police serve the public, and, to go after criminals, they need the eyes and ears of everyone.

"He's a showman, not a lawman," the Mayor adds, getting into his stride, noting also the numerous corruption investigations being pursued by Arpaio against other political leaders in Phoenix, including himself and all five members of the city board of supervisors. "It's the arrogance. It's back to the Fifties, where you got somebody with a gun that is saying that, just because he is elected, he can do what he wants." He accuses Arpaio of abusing civil rights and hurting the city. "It's driving away businesses, Hispanic and non-Hispanic, because this is what people now think that Phoenix is all about."

With some of that Arpaio, who just turned 77, would agree. When he first ran for sheriff in 1992, he said it should be an appointed post, not an elected one. "The worst thing I ever said," he reckons now. "The month I took office I knew how stupid it was. I realised that there would be no pink underwear, no Tent City, no nothing, if I had to report to some bureaucrat." The fact that he is unbeaten in the polls, gives him strength. "He is very popular," says Chief Brian Sands, a deputy sheriff. "People like his stance on law enforcement. He is responsive to what they want. He looks after the whole county."

As for driving people away – if we are talking about illegal immigrants, so much the better. "Fifty per cent have left town, according to statistics," Arpaio reveals. "They say everyone is leaving because of me. They say they are afraid to go to church any more, that [they] don't send [their] kids to school any more, that they are closing down Hispanic grocery stores because of the big bad sheriff. Any result to get rid of criminals and get 'em out of here I think is a success."

Refer to all this as his "reign of terror" and the sheriff responds less well. "Where did you read that, some Mickey Mouse newspaper?" he demands. His charm peeling away, he barrels on: "I would hope that you are a nice guy and would stop reading all this garbage and come up with an original question. Do I have to defend myself again? I have been doing it for two years. It's all lies."

He is especially cross when asked where his compassion might lie. "I have compassion. My daughter-in-law is Hispanic. My adopted grandkid is Hispanic with Down's Syndrome. I have four grandkids; one is black too. I don't publicise this, for security reasons. I don't mind saying it, because this is for England. My father and mother were Italian. OK?"

Arpaio might have reason to get testy. First there are the investigations under way in Washington accusing his department of racial profiling. He portrays this as a badge of honour, marvelling that it took the Obama administration just 60 days to announce it was going after him. "I am just a little ol' sheriff. You know how long it normally takes them to open a letter in Washington? Two years." He is refusing to talk to the investigators because he says they have been "unethical" in gathering information on him.

But beyond that, the lines that define what is acceptable and not acceptable in going after illegal aliens are beginning to shift, and Arpaio may well find himself on the wrong side of them. Last month, Washington announced that a deal struck with him and other sheriffs' departments expanding their powers to detain and process possible illegal aliens has been rewritten to take care of human rights concerns.

Arpaio has just been given 90 days to decide to abide by the new terms of the agreements or walk away from them. Already, the change has forced him to release a handful of men he knew to be illegal and it made him furious. He is not sure whether to sign or to turn his back on Washington and try to use state laws to snare illegals wherever he sees them. This, however, is likely to be just the beginning as President Obama and Congress gear up to tackle immigration reform and debate an amnesty for workers already in the country illegally. Mention amnesty and Arpaio fumes.

But, for now, he has physical strength – just today his doctor has given him a clean bill of health – and, better yet, he has his intellectual certainty. "If I know I am right, I fight all the way. I am not wrong on these issues – I am right – and I am not going to surrender." Which means, also, he has no intention of going away and will run for a sixth time in 2012. "I am raising a lot of money," he wants me to know. And that may be bad news for a lot of people.