Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Circus is in Town

by Mr. Wolf

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, 'The degree of a civilization in society can be judged by entering its prisons and jails." By the events which unfolded in Phoenix, Arizona during September, 1996, it is no doubt evident now to the world at large that America, and particularly Arizona, is now a very uncivilized, even barbaric society.

On September 16, Bob Dole, the Republican contender for head ringmaster, came to town and surrounded himself with notable local clowns as they gathered in front of the "Big Top" of the Madison Jail Tent City. It was an appropriate photo-op site for the Republicans, since it is on the backs of the downtrodden that Republicans are carving out their political careers and padding their fortunes. [Editor's Note: Ditto for the Demos.] In the background of this staged photo-op sprawled 1,500 men and women caged like animals, lying on steel bunks partially attired, sweating and dirty, and being held up to the cameras of the world. In the center ring of this media circus stood Sheriff Joe Arpaio, spouting into the cameras how his sadistic policies and degrading conditions were taking a bite out of crime. He boasted about "no coffee, no smoking, no adult magazines, no television" except for a Newt Gingrich lecture series on tape and the Weather Channel, the putrid green bologna sandwiches and making the men don pink underwear. "I want the inmates to hate jail so much they'll never come back," quipped Arpaio. "That's why I'm known as 'America's toughest Sheriff."'

Were it true that such mistreatment deterred crime or criminals, then perhaps there would be little to debate. Arpaio's philosophy has less to do with deterring crime, however, than it does with self-promotion and publicity seeking. Dole's campaign stop bears testimony to the efficacy of his showmanship. After the hoopla at the Big Top subsides, the blazing sun sinks low, the cameras are packed up and Dole's traveling circus rolls off in a cloud of dust. A different picture of the tent city emerges. Reality.

Robert M. is a former tenant of the Madison Jail. He is a self-described alcoholic and a thief. He is a veteran of the armed forces who has known combat up close and personal. He has two years of college. For family reasons he requested that his full identity not be revealed.

"The Madison Jail and its Tent City were a degrading and hostile place," recalls Robert. "It s like something out of those German concentration camp movies. Everyone is starving all the time because the food is so disgusting and in such tiny servings. The guards treat you with complete contempt. It's unbearably hot in summer and freezing in the winter."

Robert pauses a moment, a vacant stare fills his eyes, followed by a tightening of his jaw. "They rule by fear and intimidation. It s very easy to find yourself in a confrontation where several guards will beat you down. There is no accountability there. Arpaio knows the kind of abuses that happen, yet not only does he ignore them, he revels in it."

"It's common knowledge at the jail," says Robert, "that the guards routinely beat up on people. Everyone knows they murdered that guy Scott Norberg last May. Joe and his deputies operate like a street gang. They target the weak or defenseless and get a big thrill out of abusing them."

Scott Norberg was a pre-trial detainee. Eighteen hours after his arrest he was dead. He had been severely beaten by guards, a towel placed over his mouth, handcuffed to a restraint chair, and according to the autopsy report, there were several dozen stun-gun marks on his body. It is difficult to envision the sadistic scene as Arpaio's guards tortured and killed him. Norberg's family has filed a $4.5 million wrongful death suit.

"I feel we were put in this position for a reason," says Scott's mother, Deena Norberg. She and husband Jaron both say the lawsuit is not about money, but about those who did this being held accountable, and about jail conditions and attitudes changing.

Ask Arpaio about the incident and he'd likely say that Scott Norberg shouldn't have got himself in jail, nor used drugs or alcohol, to begin with. Many have fallen prey to drugs or alcohol and have later been able to conquer it and become productive citizens. Scott didn't have that chance. Joe and his henchmen made sure of that.

The next big show under the Big Top was on September 20, when Arpaio unveiled his latest publicity stunt: the female chain gang. PLN has previously reported how Alabama's prison commissioner, Ron Jones, was fired for announcing plans to implement a female chain gang. [See: Prisons Chief Fired Over Women in Chains, PLN, July , 96.]

Arpaio selected fifteen women who were in disciplinary lockdown. The women were ordered to wear bright orange jumpsuits, black combat boots and orange baseball caps which had 'Inmate" splashed across the brim in bold, black letters. They were then chained together and paraded before media from every part of the world who had all flocked to capture images of this latest circus act. It was a grand day for Arpaio, and a sad, disheartening day for America, especially Arizona.

"It was a circus," said Donna Hamm, President of Middle Ground, a family prisoner rights advocacy group which staged a protest along the route of the female chain gang. "We're all for prisoners working on legitimate work projects, but this was a zoo. They did not have to be chained to pick up cigarette butts or bag up some weeds. It was all a big show to make people look down on these poor people."

One of the women told a BBC reporter, "This is the most humiliating and degrading day of my life."

Arpaio's position is, "Then don't come to jail." It is a sentiment apparently shared by a large segment of the community, since recent polls indicate that Sheriff Joe has an 85% approval rating. But does abuse, brutality and humiliation deter law breakers, or does it serve only the self-interests of Arpaio, Dole, Arizona governor Fife Symington and others who exploit the captives to further their political careers?

"My entire time spent at the jail," says Robert, "was centered around raw survival. There was no opportunity for counseling or getting any help for my alcoholism. And just like all those prisoners who were interviewed when Dole was at the Tent City said, it was terrible, and they never wanted to come back. I, too, felt exactly the same when I was there. But once such a negative experience is over, there's a price to pay, just like a lot of vets from 'Nam will tell you. I began drinking again the third day I was out. Within two months I was rearrested on another theft and back at the jail. All around me in the months that followed, the guys I'd been locked up with the first time were returning. I'd say at least 75 percent come back after getting out of there. It's disgusting! All that mistreatment and humiliation for nothing. It's just a look good Joe show."

Robert is angry now, at himself, yes, with good cause, but also at a system which is devoid of basic dignity, a system which abuses those who are socially or economically disadvantaged. He is angry at Arpaio, who he sees as a demagogue, and at politicians who are misleading the public.

Robert had no realistic opportunity for rehabilitation in Arpaio's tent city. Maybe at some point in the future he'll have that chance.

Arpaio's brand of circus-style justice levied a steep price on the Norberg family, the loss of their son. Scott will never have the chance to turn his life around. Ever.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login