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Tent City Jail Erupts in Flames

Most PLN readers are aware of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's reputation as "the meanest sheriff in America," infamous for his tent-city jail, stripped of amenities, sweltering in the Arizona sun under a large neon "Vacancy" sign. Arpaio is unabashedly proud of his reputation for being tough on prisoners. He's an inveterate PR hound, running his tent-jail like a three ring media circus, forcing his prisoners to wear pink underwear and eat green bologna. As a result, he has garnered an incredible amount of national media attention.

He has also drawn the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, which has been conducting an ongoing investigation into charges of civil rights violations at the three Maricopa County Jails he supervises. Several excessive force civil suits by individual prisoners are pending against Arpaio, as well as at least one wrongful death suit.

On Sunday, November 17, 1995, Joe's tent-jail erupted in violence and flames. The three hour rebellion left three deputies and half a dozen jail detainees with minor injuries and was finally quelled by Arizona National Guard troops in riot gear and gas masks.

Arpaio told reporters the uprising was sparked by one detainee assaulting another. Dozens of newspaper accounts reviewed by PLN compliantly echoed this official explanation.

USA Today reporter Mark Potok asked Arpaio, presumably in a telephone interview, "What caused the riot?"

"We haven't gotten to the bottom of it," said Arpaio. "Some people say it was racially motivated, some people say an inmate had a fight with another inmate and an officer. They did have a problem with the food ... and the health problem. I talked to all the inmates. They know they're still going to wear pink underwear, and they're going to have to live in tents. But let me just say that if it was a riot, nobody was seriously injured."

The only paper to deviate from Arpaio's official characterization of events was the Mesa Tribune (AZ), whose on-the-scene reporters say they were able to "sneak past the sheriff's men ... past cops in riot gear, past yelping dogs, past brandished shotguns" to get within 30 feet of a group of detainees behind two chain-link fences.

It was there that reporters Cheryl Hanna and David Leibowitz were able to conduct interviews, shouted through the fences, with prisoners who provided their take on the situation.

According to the detainees the disturbance was a result of overcrowding at the jail and daily brutality at the hands of Arpaio's deputies.

Dozens of detainees say the uprising started when detainee Bobby "Bulldog" Baxter snuck into a portable Jiffy-John, presumably to use the toilet, when the yard was locked down for count. That's where a deputy named Gabbert found him. Detainee Ernest Esry admitted that Bulldog shouldn't have been in the Jiffy-John during count, but pointed out that there are only a dozen portable toilets for use by more than 800 detainees. It's not always easy to gain access to one. Esry described what happened next:

"Man, Gabbert pulled him out of the that J-John and pepper sprayed him. It wasn't a contest. Gabbert goes like 300 pounds, Bulldog's a little guy, maybe 130. Got him right in the face."

Several detainees standing around Esry say they witnessed the pepper spraying and say that's what sparked the uprising. "Print that!" they shouted to reporters, and, "Don't cover it up, media man."

The two Mesa Tribune reporters then tracked down Arpaio, who said, "I've heard that story, and I also heard that two inmates were fighting. We're going to look into it. I have a jail crimes unit and we're going to investigate that."

Before the uprising was entirely quelled, Arpaio agreed to go into the tent-jail and meet with three detainees who had been selected by the rest of the jail's population to present their grievances to the sheriff. Detainee Lee Helmandollar was one of the three who met with Arpaio. "He wanted to know what it was going to take to get this riot under control, why it happened. We absolutely requested one thing and one thing only. We requested that the physical abuse of inmates stop. That is the only thing we requested .... They're constantly threatening us with physical violence."

Again, of the dozens of other news reports reviewed by PLN, none contained that very simple and powerful quote. The New York Times reported that detainees complained about inadequate medical care, bad food, brutality by the guards and the discomfort of living in the tents. Similar lists of gripes were reported by other newspapers.

Arpaio clowned to the media after the disturbance, feeding them "tough sheriff" sound bites, which were duly reported. "They're in jail. This isn't a hotel," is one of the more widely quoted quips delivered by Arpaio as he stood in front of the still-smoldering remains of the tent-jail uprising. "The riot has changed nothing. The pink underwear will be there, the chain gangs will be there, there'll be no smoking, no nude magazines. The tents will continue to stay."

Until the next time they burn down?

Mesa Tribune, NY Times, USA Today, et al.

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