Skip navigation

Maricopa County, AZ Sheriff Stages Media Event to Promote Meatless Meals

Maricopa County, AZ Sheriff Stages Media Event to Promote Meatless Meals

by Joe Watson

When prisoners at the Maricopa County, Arizona jail lined up for chow on April 15, 2015, they were in for a surprise – helping to serve the midday meal was former Playboy model and Baywatch TV star Pamela Anderson.

Anderson visited the jail at the invitation of infamous Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to help promote his 2013 decision to remove meat products from prisoners’ meals. Anderson, a longtime vegetarian and spokeswoman for the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), offered her support for the meat-free diet.

“I believe people can be rehabilitated from the inside out,” she said in a statement. “Jails are full of people wanting to change, to make amends, to learn healthier habits and understand compassion and empathy.”

“When we heard about the vegetarian jail in Maricopa County, that’s 8,300 people a day not eating meat and it’s a wonderful example for other jails around the country that could have health impacts on the inmates as well as saving taxes,” PETA senior vice president Dan Mathews told ThinkProgress. “[I]t’s an efficient wonderful program and we believe that prisoners are the ideal crowds to learn about a less violent diet and a more healthful diet.”

ThinkProgress called the media event “a new low for PETA.”

For his part, Sheriff Arpaio touted an estimated $200,000 in annual savings to taxpayers generated by taking meat off the jail’s menu.

“I don’t know why every other jail and prison wouldn’t want to copy what we’ve accomplished here,” Arpaio said. “It works on every level: financially for the taxpayer, health-wise for the inmate.”

A Sheriff’s Office press release cited other “benefits” of the vegetarian diet forced on prisoners, including “reduced electricity costs, not having to tailor a variety of meals to suit different religious convictions and other special requests, and providing healthier meals that don’t spoil as quickly as animal products.”

However, not everyone spoke highly of the new menu. A Fox television reporter had commented during a prior visit to the jail that the soy in a stew resembled “wood chips” and the carrots were brown.

“Oh, that’s probably just dirt,” Arpaio responded. “Don’t worry about that.”

Meals in the Maricopa County jail system have also been the target of prisoner protests. reported on February 13, 2014 that the new vegetarian menu sparked a hunger strike at the Estrella Jail. Prisoners complained that their meals were similar to dirt, dog food and dog excrement, prompting Arpaio to retort, “They ought to shut up and eat what they have.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2014, p.56].

Despite the orchestrated media event, Arpaio remains one of the most reviled law enforcement officials in the nation by his critics, who have long complained about the harsh conditions at his jails, a disturbing number of prisoners who have died in custody following use of force incidents involving guards, his practice of retaliating against people who disagree with him, and his anti-immigrant bias and racial targeting of Hispanics.

In the past, Arpaio has been condemned by Amnesty International and the ACLU for his poor treatment of prisoners, and in 2008 a federal district court ruled that Arpaio’s jails failed to meet constitutional standards in several key areas, notably “quality of food, inmate access to recreation areas, temperatures in which inmates taking psychiatric medication are held, and the quality and availability of medical and mental-health care,” according to AZCentral.

And despite Arpaio’s boast of the money being saved by the vegetarian meals, Maricopa County taxpayers remain on the hook for millions in pay-outs to settle wrongful prosecution lawsuits as well as death and injury claims filed by prisoners and their families, plus at least $21.9 million to institute court-ordered reforms to correct Arpaio’s racial profiling of Latinos. Asked to compare the $200,000 in meal savings with the millions the county must spend to comply with the court order, Arpaio’s press conference with Pamela Anderson came to an end.

“We won’t be getting into that today, thanks very much,” Arpaio said.

Sheriff Arpaio is currently facing contempt hearings in federal court for failing to follow the court’s orders in the racial profiling case.