The sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa county, Joe Arpaio, likes to portray himself as a hard man and merciless hunter of illegal immigrants, the boss of a prison where inmates live outdoors in tents, even in hellish summer heat.
“The next time you want to complain about Tent City STOP! Instead think about how hard life is for our soldiers in Iraq,” reads a sign at the entrance to the Maricopa jail.
Under the sign, in the prison’s waiting room, is a scene that has become commonplace: a woman wiping away tears.
When she is asked who she is waiting to visit, the woman says in Spanish only: “She is just a girl.”
There are no minors in the Maricopa prison, but the detainees are as young as 18 years old. They are dressed in black and white striped uniforms copied from old American movies.
They also are forced to wear pink underwear, and to work in chain gangs of up 20 people, cleaning streets or painting walls, with shackles on their feet.
At the top of a prison watchtower, a sign flashes the word “vacancy,” one more of Sheriff Joe’s grim jokes.
Arpaio changed the rules at the jail when he was elected sheriff in 1992. He has since been easily re-elected to three more consecutive terms.
He has gained national renown, and his popularity is so great in Arizona that he was even rumored to be getting ready to run for governor in the next elections.
The 77-year-old ruled out that possibility in an interview this week, but said he wanted to continue to serve his people.
“If you have the support of the people you can move mountains, and I think I proved that with 18 years as sheriff, including (with such) things like the chain gang (and) tent camps,” he told AFP.
His critics, who are as vocal as his supporters, insist that beneath a surface efficiency lies a latent racism in a state with 460,000 illegal immigrants, the great majority of them Hispanics.
Arizona recently passed a controversial law which empowers police to detain any foreigner suspected of not having their papers in order.
Arpaio, the son of Italian immigrants, calmly rejects the racist label.
“That’s a shame they don’t like me,” he says with a smile.
Then he attacks: “The first thing you should do is this: anyone who gets over the billion-dollar (border) fence, put him in jail,” he said.
The sheriff has succeeded in creating a climate of fear in Arizona’s migrant community, but he is also being watched very closely by the federal government.
The jail looks spacious and clean, with the controversial tents arrayed in a large central courtyard under a sun that is beginning to beat down.
“It can be really hot here, down the tents, yes. About over 110, 120 degrees Fahrenheit,” Rene Ansley, a detention officer, said without blinking an eye. 120 degrees Fahrenheit is over 48 degrees Celsius.
Ansley says the prisoners are healthy because they spend the day working outside, or in a large dining hall in the main building.
“We do also issue inmates with bottled water. When they come here we do encourage hydration, all the time,” he said.
As part of the work program in the jail, prisoners working on a small farm caring for animals that have been mistreated.
Christopher Lee, 32, one of the prisoners, caressed a horse as he thought about Arpaio.
“Sheriff Joe is not nice, that is the way it is,” he said.
“I’d tell him you don’t need to be such a hard-ass on everything, but I appreciate things he does (for me).”
The Maricopa jail is only for prisoners serving time for minor offenses, like drunk driving. The longest a prisoner can serve here is a year, Ansley said.
Although it has a capacity of up to 2,000 prisoners, its average population has fallen to just 800 inmates after the federal government two years ago dropped Arpaio from an effort targeting illegal immigrants who commit crimes.
Besides the farm, there are programs to help inmates fight drug addiction, and even a small school.
The last prison uprising was four years ago, according to Ansley, who said the tough regime gives the inmates discipline they will need when they get out of jail.
“When they come out of our facilities they are like fish out of water. They don’t have any clue what to do with themselves.
The tough approach taken by Arpaio, he said, “gives them some kind of direction.”