Jurisprudence

Ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio Wants to Bring Back His Brutal Tent City

Convicted criminal Joe Arpaio wants to reopen Maricopa County’s "tent city," seen here on May 3, 2010, in Phoenix.
Convicted criminal Joe Arpaio wants to reopen Maricopa County’s “tent city,” seen here on May 3, 2010, in Phoenix.
Paul J. Richards/Getty Images

One of the most notoriously racist sheriffs in recent American history wants his job back. Joe Arpaio, who served six terms as sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County before losing the office in 2016, announced on Sunday that he would run again for his old position in 2020.

In 2017, Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt for violating a 2011 court injunction blocking his discriminatory law enforcement stops of Hispanics in Maricopa County, the fourth-largest county in the country. Before he could be sentenced, President Donald Trump issued a controversial pardon of Arpaio, who was one of the first Republicans in the country to endorse Trump’s presidential candidacy. As Mark Joseph Stern wrote at the time Trump was considering the pardon, the clemency was a potent symbol of Trump finding common cause with white nationalists:

During his 24-year tenure as sheriff, Arpaio proudly strove to implement white nationalism through a brutal assault on Maricopa County’s Latino population. His barbaric tactics included extreme racial profiling and sadistic punishments that involved the torture, humiliation, and degradation of Latino inmates. Courts repeatedly found that Arpaio violated the United States Constitution, but the sheriff often ignored their efforts to rein him in. There are few more potent symbols of mainstream white nationalism than Arpaio.

Following his pardon, Arpaio ran in the 2018 Republican Senate primary in Arizona to try to replace Jeff Flake. He finished third with under 18 percent of the vote.

In his campaign announcement on Sunday, Arpaio promised to bring back one of his cruelest policies, pledging to revive his infamous “tent city” jail. Democratic Sheriff Paul Penzone, who defeated Arpaio in 2016, closed down that system shortly after taking office. Since then, the Trump administration has mainstreamed some of Arpaio’s most horrifying tactics, including the wide usage of outdoor tent cities to detain migrants. Now that Arpaio is vying for control of his old jail again, it’s worth revisiting a few of the atrocities he oversaw.

• Nine years before New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got into hot water for describing Trump’s tent detention facilities for migrants as concentration camps, Arpaio bragged that his own tent city jail facility for “illegals” was an effective “concentration camp.”

• He often boasted about the brutal 120-degree heat that prisoners in his tent city—many of whom had not yet been convicted—were made to endure. The temperature in those tents could reportedly reach 145 degrees.

• He aired live webcams of prisoners, including one of the toilet in a woman’s facility, before the courts shut them down.

• He claimed to investigate President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, and as recently as last year claimed there was “no doubt” it was a “phony.”

• He knowingly and illegally detained at least 171 individuals after a 2011 injunction barred his discriminatory detention practices, bragging that he would “never give in to control by the federal government.”

• Between 2004 and 2008, his jail was sued more than five times as much the county jails of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston combined.

• His office’s physically brutal tactics—such as using stun guns on a prisoner already strapped to a restraint chair—led to multiple deaths in his custody. This led to multimillion-dollar settlements for the family of prisoners were who were killed due to the brutality of those in his office. As the New Yorker reported, one $8.25 million settlement came “after the discovery of a surveillance video that showed fourteen guards beating, shocking, and suffocating the prisoner, and after the sheriff’s office was accused of discarding evidence, including the crushed larynx of the deceased.”

• Arpaio’s prisoners were allegedly punished with solitary confinement for being unable to speak English, referred to by jail staff as “wetbacks,” “Mexican bitches,” and “stupid Mexicans,” deprived of food and medical care, and physically tortured in exceedingly hot solitary confinement cells that offered certain inmates increased risk of heat-related illness.

• While Arpaio’s war on the Hispanic population of Maricopa County was ongoing, he cost the county tens of millions of dollars in court settlements and legal fees, and his office failed to resolve investigations of hundreds of sexual assault cases including at least 32 child abuse cases.

Trump has supercharged Arpaio’s tent city practices at the federal level. At least seven children, meanwhile, have died in immigration custody in the last year after a period of ten years in which no such deaths occurred. Border detention centers have also become infamous for extreme temperatures, and federal courts have ruled that children in federal detention were being unlawfully denied access to food, water and basic hygiene. Federal officials may not boast about these conditions like Arpaio did, but Trump has expressed admiration for the sheriff’s approach. In pardoning Arpaio, Trump praised the sheriff’s “50 years of admirable service to our nation” and “life’s work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration.”

Despite his powerful ally in the White House, Arpaio faces a steep road to winning the office back. He will be 92 years old by the time the next sheriff’s term ends, the Democratic incumbent beat him by more than 10 percentage points in 2016, and he already has at least one credible challenger—his former chief deputy, Jerry Sheridan—in the Republican primary. It’s unclear if Arpaio will have a presidential endorsement, but his dehumanizing tactics have clearly been an inspiration to this president and his administration. Arpaio said it best when he formally endorsed Trump’s campaign in January 2016: “Everything I believe in, he’s doing and he’s going to do it when he becomes president.”