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CAN WE ALL AGREE, NOW, THAT THE DISGRACED SHERIFF ARPAIO IS A DISGRACE?

In December 2011, Judge Snow ordered the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) headed by Sheriff Joe Arpaio to cease its practices of racial profiling and “enforcement” of immigration law. The reason? Sheriff jurisdictions are not responsible for enforcing immigration law; federal authorities are.

If Arpaio had complied then he wouldn’t be where he is now and we wouldn’t have a story about his demise to enjoy. Arpaio is currently in court. He has admitted to not adhering to the court order to cease his deputies’ special brand of patrols. His weak-sauce defense is that “things fell through the cracks” and his subordinates made mistakes. The upshot? Deputies didn’t receive any retraining about how not to racially profile and harass Latino citizens.

Arpaio thought he and his office so untouchable that he ignored the court order and instructed his staff to do the same. Arpaio has been battered in court this week. First, a former senior deputy recounted how Arpaio urged him to hold presumed undocumented persons who’d committed no crime, even after ICE had told MCSO that they were not going to transfer them into custody. Second, Arpaio has been on the stand cutting a forlorn figure — unheard of from the man who has personified cocky bullishness his entire career. It’s been humiliating. Arpaio’s apologies seem less than sincere and more the actions of a man with no other options and no other distraction-techniques to call upon. Third, Arpaio admitted that his former attorney hired a private investigator to snoop into Judge Snow’s wife’s life and political affiliations.

If Arpaio’s lawyers aren’t walking out on him, they are coming under question themselves.

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The case is ongoing and there might be more to come. Let’s just say it looks like Arpaio is going to get hit with civil-contempt charges for his non-compliance to the court order. It could’ve been any of dozens of abuses that Arpaio’s enacted, but it seems like it is this one that is to be his undoing. For a brief history of Arpaio’s sleaziest tricks, read this.

Why do I bring all of this up? Well, part of Arpaio’s power plays has been a constant play of the media. He invented pink underwear, adopted striped uniforms, instigated chain gangs. He had prisoners painting curbstones in down town Phoenix in order to put the image of the convict in front of his constituents. He dominated the visual tropes of criminality … and expanded them all. MCSO invited a constant stream of photographers through its facilities to perpetuate Arpaio’s media game and to propel the cult of personality. I’ve written a lot about different photographers’ work from ‘Tent City’ or Estrella Jail (women’s jail) or the chain gangs at large in the desert, but my position — after years of peering at it — is best described in this post Photos That Extend the Jailer’s Narrative.

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An all-female chain gang. Maricopa County, Arizona.

Recently, photographer Anthony Karen contacted me with his photographs from the Maricopa County jails. I felt like I’d said everything about Arpaio that I wanted to say, but when “America’s Shittiest Sheriff” stepped into the courtroom this week, I was excited by the prospect of covering Big Joe and not having to complain. To the contrary, I can positively celebrate these developments. Hopefully, this is Arpaio’s final act in public office and this is the last I’ll ever have to type his name.

I’m thankful for Mr. Karen for sharing his images with Prison Photography and for letting me editorialise our Q&A with this lengthy intro.

Karen made these photographs in Oct 2012, which is to say right in the middle of the 18-month period in which Arpaio’s office was willfully ignoring court orders to cease racial profiling.

Scroll down for our Q&A.

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Prison Photography (PP): You said you wanted to make non-sensational coverage. Did you achieve that?

Anthony Karen (AK): I believe so, although I consider this a work-in-process and would like to return at some point. I did take several images of Sheriff Arpaio’s poster-board ladened office, but it’s a necessary element in my opinion.

Asides from that, daily life in a jail is fairly straightforward for the most part. I say that with the exclusion of the pronounced environmental situation aka the temperatures at Tent City to which prisoners are exposed.

PP: How long were you there?

AK: I spent approximately 6 hours — in the jail and with the female chain-gang outside the facility — over a two-day period.

PP: Why did you go?

AK: I was working on a project with a journalist friend of mine from Norway. Our initial focus was a White Nationalist who conducts his own border patrols in the Vekol Valley in Arizona. The Norwegian publication we were working for thought it would add some dimension if we interviewed Sheriff Arpaio regarding his views on illegal immigration and his unique approach to incarceration.

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PP: Did you have much interaction with Arpaio? 

AK: We spent approximately 45 minutes with him at his office.

PP: What was that like?

AK: Honestly, it was very relaxed. The Sheriff seemed to appreciate my sarcastic sense of humor.

During the interview, my friend asked the standard Tent City questions and Sheriff Arpaio responded accordingly. It was quite obvious he’s been down this interview road thousands of times before. He’s definitely his own man and proud of his accomplishments — he doesn’t seem to be phased by those who disagree with his methods.

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PP: What did you make of the people in Maricopa and Estella jails?  

AK: The correction officers were polite and accommodating to me as a visitor and photojournalist.

Overall, no one seemed bothered by my presence. I was able to interact with the prisoners, but most of my time was spent observing and taking photos as moments presented themselves.

PP: Did they need to be there? 

AK: Unfortunately, there are people in our society who do very bad things. So as far as being incarcerated, yes we need jails and prisons. Might there be a better way to rehabilitate prisoners – yes, and that goes for other institutions as well.

PP: Were they learning, improving, drying out? What was their experience in the jail?

AK: To be fair, I didn’t spend enough time at the jail to answer that question with any authority. I did notice several prisoners occupied with activities such as drawing and reading. That said, I would like to return at some point to observe how prisoners engage in worship, the chain-gang burial detail at the White Tank Cemetery, the infirmary and processing.

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PP: I’ve said many times before that Arpaio is media savvy and controls the message too much. Do you agree, or is there space for photographers to work and forge their own view?

AK: He is media savvy, but I’d imagine that’s to be expected from someone who’s constantly bombarded with interview requests.

I was able to roam freely within the jail, so as a photojournalist his words had little affect on my visual experience. I feel the issue is the journalist(s) that go into a story with only an hour to spare and are lured into the sensational aspects (and let’s not forget the editors role as well) which is all too common these days. Something as simple as non-scripted daily-life is far more interesting to me.

PP: Thanks Anthony.

AK: Thank you Pete.

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