Letter from the Editor

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Careful who we make into heroes

Of late, I've received as many reader e-mails on Sheriff Joe Arpaio as any issue - implying, I suppose, a wish that out local law enforcement was run more like that of the colorful Phoenix area lawman.

Indeed, Arpaio has done some amazing things, like turning an old jail into a stray animal shelter staffed by prioners, using prison labor to grow food, and providing mandatory English lessons for prisoners who don't speak the language. There are some progressive ideas there (though I'm not certain they are all original with him) that could certainly be utilized elsewhere.

Sheriff Joe has indeed found fane for his unconventional methods, and won reelection several times. But things seem to have gone a step beyond interest and open-minded respect for some unusual methods here - the messages I get are almost worshipful of the man, wondering when the rest of the country's law enforcement will get with his program.

We have to be a bit careful who our heroes are.

The public relations machine points out the money Sheriff Joe has saved his county, but doesn't mention that, reportedly, he has also cost it some $43 million in settlements to lawsuits for quite an array of reported abuse or deaths of his prisoners.

While the e-mails cheer him for mandating that prisoners learn the words to "God Bless America" and wear stunning pink outfits, they never seem to mention the allegations of racial profiling and detaining hispanic citizens - in one interview, he seemed to place himself above the laws, claiming that he and his department can recognize illegal immigrants as opposed to legal ones, in part, by how they are dressed.

He is applauded for tough love in the form of putting prisoners in outdoor tents instead of building new jail space, but it is not mentioned that the temperatures may reach 150 degrees in such a structure in that environment, enough to potentially kill a man or woman. Former employees of the department have said that he has emptied out a floor of the jail in order to fill his tents for the sake of appearances.

He is lauded for reducing prisoners to two 30-cent meals a day, but it is not mentioned that some sources suggest that he uses outdated meat to do so. Or that he is accused of using cameras in units of pretrial witnesses to air them on a sort of reality show website. Or that he had admittedly forced prioners to march in public in only underpants (less work to search them).

Are we so sure that we would want a sheriff who doesn't follow federal laws on immigration enforcement, and has caused the very mayor of his city to call for a Justice Department investigation of his "crime suppression sweeps" but does sell underwear with his name on it, and books in which he refers to himself as virutally a superhero - "America's Toughest Sheriff."

In general, most would agree that jail should have minimal comfort (after all, the idea is to make incarceration awful enough that no one wants to come back) but also not so inhumane that we wouldn't subject a dog to the same conditions.

From what we have been able to see, our new local jail fulfills the bill properly. Our law enforcement is tough too, but not mean or brutal - or self promoting.

The real issue of promise isn't whether the sheriff bans cable TV channels, coffee or tidy whitie boxers - but prisoner labor.

Arpaio's animal shelter idea may be his best. No doubt many bored inmates would happily care for the strays that law enforcement picks up anyway. In this area, we are fortunate enough to have privately operated dog and cat shelters and a veterinary hospital that fill the bill, but some northwest Iowa counties have no shelter at all.

As far as I am aware, Buena Vista County Jail has never used its prisoners for off-site labor, although Storm Lake and Lakeside have contracted with state prisons for some workers for park and streetside projects off and on.

I believe that only non-violent offenders are allowed, with supervision. The city is to cover transport costs.

It's good PR for the prisons, and who wouldn't rather be doing something outside instead of staring at a prison wall all day?

I'm not so sure we would be comfortable with mandatory chain gangs, despite e-mail to the contrary. Our system is justice, not slavery.

It's tougher in practice than it sounds to empty the jail and put all your local prisoners to work - "free" labor can get expensive when you must investigate their backgrounds, transport and feed them outside the jail, and pay guards to watch them work. Hopefully, our non-violent offenders are not in jail for long periods - but that means we would constantly have to retrain.

There should be some ways they can contribute to society. How about filming documentaries for young people who might learn from their mistakes?

If there are willing volunteers, English instruction might be a good idea, as would anger management or even some basic vocational preparation programs. There is probably little good that can come from just leaving people to rot without purpose.

Prisoners don't need cigarettes, porn magazines, weight-lifting equipment - but they probably don't need pink underwear or a grandstanding sheriff looking to sell books, either.

They might not make headlines, but I suspect those who quietly go about enforcing the laws and operating the jail here legally, fairly, firmly and humanely are as heroic and very probably more so than any would-be "superhero" sheriff.