Concentration Camps Arizona Style: Pink Undies

Some of this stuff is impossible to make up. No one would believe it if it were fiction.       There is an old sheriff in town and his name is Joe Arpaio. He has announced that he is running for the US Senate in the upcoming Arizona election as a result of the resignation of Jeff Flake, the Republican who resigned to criticize Trump more freely. He is the former sheriff of the county in which I have lived for the past 4 years, Maricopa County. Sometimes this place seems like the Wild West. Now I know why. The sheriff is, as the saying goes, is a piece of work.

To begin with, the good sheriff initiated a very popular effort to round up illegal Mexicans in the County. It was hugely popular among some Arizonans–like older white people. This alone did not make Arpaio famous, but it helped.

Sheriff Arpaio first vaulted to fame in 1993 when he created an outdoor tent city in Maricopa County as a temporary makeshift prison. The sheriff created the tent city to cope with the overflow from prisons already filled to capacity, due in part to his crackdown on undocumented immigrants. We all have to remember that temperatures can reach 54 ° Celsius in Arizona in the summer. That is equal to 129 ° Fahrenheit. He added to his fame by making prisoners wear pink underwear, pink socks, and pink bedding. He said the color might deter stealing. Would you steal pink underwear? Of course would you steal white underwear?

Sheriff Arpaio caught the attention of 2 Arizona reporters Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin. They had a second reason for their curiosity. They noticed that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office had blown its budget in the first couple of months in the year and wondered if the issues were related.

They found that before Arpaio stepped up his dramatic enforcement of illegal immigrants, the arrest rate in the County was about 10 %. That is poor. Yet as his officers focused on immigration crackdowns that rate dropped to less than 4%. As they conducted massive immigration sweeps in manly Hispanic neighborhoods they needed to employ 100 deputies and spent huge sums of money.

The reporters also discovered that as the Sheriff’s office was fixated on illegals, nearly everything else was neglected. The Special Victims Unit did not have time to investigate sex crimes such as rapes, which they had been created to investigate. Many other ordinary duties were neglected so that deputies could go after illegals. According to Gabrielson, “They had just ceased to do criminal investigations for other reasons and nobody was paying attention and it piled up — hundreds and hundreds of uninvestigated cases that nobody was doing anything about because the force was converting into an immigration enforcement agency.”[1] The average police response time for serious crimes dropped rapidly.

The police also stopped all kinds of cars for spot inspections, particularly if people who appeared Hispanic were in the car. Cars with white people were seldom stopped. It was clearly racial profiling. This was clear to everyone.

Joe Arpaio became so famous that The Guardian from England came to investigate. Arpaio was the rock star of American Sheriff’s. At one time the TV cameras came to see what all the fuss was about. The Guardian described the event this way,


‘Hitler! Hitler!” the prisoners chanted to the TV cameras in protest. It was February  4th 2009. More than 200 Latino men in black-and-white striped uniforms, shackled to each other, were being marched towards an outdoor unit especially for “illegal alien” prisoners in Arizona’s infamous jail, Tent City. The chants were directed at the Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who a few months before had called this outdoor jail close to downtown Phoenix – his own tough-on-crime creation – a “concentration camp” in a speech to political supporters at his local Italian-American club.[2] 

I have never believed that prisons should be country clubs, but a concentration camp is going a bit far. Remember it was Arpaio himself who called it a concentration camp, not some bleeding heart liberal.

Arpaio’s political career hit the skids in 2016. Many Republicans turned against him because his techniques were so costly and ineffective. First, there were numerous successful law suits filed against him and the County.

Michael Manning an Arizona litigation attorney was one of his most vocal critics even though he made a lot of money representing numerous plaintiffs in claims against the County of Maricopa. “He got away with it because people could excuse the embedded racism in his message,” Manning said. “Because he fashioned it always as: ‘I’m going to protect you from people who are out there breaking the law and threatening your lives and property.’” In other words, to return to a theme in these chronicles, Arpaio appealed to the fears of his rich constituents. That is all to easy to do in Arizona as in other places in the United States.

In 2011 an Arizona judge ordered Arpaio to stop detaining immigrants during traffic patrols, whom he suspected (without any evidence of course other than racial profiling) of being in the country illegally. Then another Arizona judge found Arpaio guilty of disobeying that court order.

Then Arpaio lost the election for Sheriff of Maricopa Count in November of 2016. His successor closed Tent City citing the astonishing costs of operating it (on average $9 million per year). His successor said, “This facility is not a crime deterrent, it’s not cost-efficient and it’s not tough on criminals.” There would be no more mandatory pink underwear. What a pity.

But Arpaio’s time in the sun was not over. He got national attention After all, there was a new sheriff in Arizona, but there was also a new President in Washington. Arpaio became the first person to be pardoned by President Donald Trump. Trump suggested Arpaio was convicted for “doing his job.”  As the CBC reported, “So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” Trump called out to the crowd. “I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine.” His prediction turned out to be right. Surprise. Trump loved him because Arpaio was perceived as being tough on illegal immigrants. That was enough for Trump. Meanwhile Gabrielson and Giblin won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting. Only in America; only in Arizona. A concentration where prisoners have to wear pink undies.

[1] Ryan Gabrielson, “The Rise of Joe Arpaio,” East Valley Tribune (June 9, 2008)


[2] Valeria Fernández “Arizona’s ‘Concentration Camp’: Why was Tent City kept open for 24 years?” The Guardian (August 21, 2017)


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