Sheriff Joe’s Jails: An Escape Story

“America’s toughest sheriff” has escaped a fate so poetically just as to make the gods weep. Unlike the inmates in his county jails, he will never peer from the other side of the bars. He will never eat the green bologna sandwiches. He will never be paraded around in chains and striped pajamas or pass a 110 ℉ summer day in his “tent city” “concentration camp.” He will never be subject to the harassment of ill-educated detention officers. He will never wear the threadbare pink underwear warmed by a hundred asses before his.

It’s been my privilege to to get an inside view of Sheriff Joe’s jails. Back in the relatively progressive late nineties, I taught English through a local college program to largely Hispanic inmates at Durango and Towers jails. I remember dodging a puddle on a dank November morning, the nauseating smell of the nearby dog pound greeting me on my first day. I, of course, my freedom but a few hours away, could sweep aside the dismal emotions provoked by that scene.

A Short Escape from the Sheriff’s Clutches

My stint in the Maricopa jails lasted a year. Five mornings a week, I passed through the clanging doors with my hand-outs, took possession of my bundle of stubby bowling-score-card pencils, and held court with my captive audience for four hours. They were an appreciative group, but not because I wowed them with my superior teaching skills. My class was one of their only opportunities to escape the tedium, the institutional squalor, and the hostile provocations of both other inmates and some of the staff. (I once witnessed a detention officer taunting an inmate in a holding cell, the latter clearly crazed and already out of control.) Sadly, the program was discontinued. A waste of taxpayer money.

Some prisoners found escape in other ways. One day, a student presented me with a small gift: a woven necklace of a cross embedded in a heart. Fine and delicate, it had been fashioned from pale pink and white thread. The workmanship amazed me. I should have guessed how my student had managed to get his material, but I had to ask. It was only when he smilingly pulled at the band of his pink underwear that I understood. It seems such weaving was  a kind of folk art practiced by several of the Mexican students in my class. And lacking few other resources—save snack bags or gum wrappers— they picked the thread from their prison garb.

While that job gave me a look inside the jails, it was not my only encounter with Sheriff Joe’s domain. Between 2014 and 2016, my son was a guest in those very jails on several occasions, each visit stemming in one way or another from his addiction to heroin and associated infractions. On each occasion, after detoxing on the filthy floor of the holding cell and later the sick pod, he fell in with the dull routine.

For him escape came in the way of a dog-eared book, a smoke in the yard, a talk with me on the phone—which entirely depended on my being able to pick up before the call went to voice mail. He never got a visit, though. It seemed to involve some labyrinthine procedure through an online application the exact instructions of which I could not understand from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office website. We both knew, however, that even if I did go down to the jail, the visit wouldn’t be in person but over closed circuit video.

Luckily my son did not stay in Tent City. But he did send me the entertaining piece of mail at the top of this post, one of a couple of edifying picture postcards available for purchase. Here’s another one:

Image of postcard of Sheriff Joe with dead camel, a waarning against the sale of tobacco to minors.

My son was also fortunate that his mug shot did not appear on the “playful” “Mugshot of the Day” feature of the MCSO website, a truly awful practice that from 2011 to late 2016 allowed viewers to vote on the most pathetic mugshot of the last 24 hours.

A Sheriff Not Loved by All Arizonans

These are just a few personal reflections on the now discredited sheriff. The Phoenix New Times, among many other news outlets, has documented many of his serious abuses, not the least of which is the racial profiling Arpaio refused to discontinue after being ordered to do so by a federal judge. And let’s get the record straight here. Although Donald Trump may claim, as he did in defense of his recent pardon of Arpaio, that he (the sheriff) “is loved in Arizona,” the estimated 50 percent of us Arizonans who disapproved of the pardon are incensed that he has escaped his day in court.

Once again my inspiration for today’s post is Charli Mill’s Flash Fiction Challenge.

Graphic of tree-lined shore and "August 24: Flash Fiction Challenge"August 17, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about an escape artist. It can even be you, the writer, escaping into a different realm or space in imagination. It can be any genre, including BOTS (based on a true story) or fantasy. You can focus on the escape, the twist or the person who is the escape artist.

Escape Artist

Only his hands and eyes existed. And the thin strands. Cross, loop, knot; cross, loop, knot.

He wanted to give her something. The nice gringa teacher. Who looked him in the eye. Who smiled. Who explained in Spanish when he couldn’t understand.

The fat gringo voices around him faded. The rows of bunks. The sweating walls. The smell of urine.

Cross, loop, knot. A cross. A heart. A simple cord necklace.

He fingered his small creation. Thought of his village outside Culiacán. His mother. The smell of tortillas and the simmering pot of frijoles.

He could taste them now.



21 thoughts on “Sheriff Joe’s Jails: An Escape Story

  1. We heard that he had been pardoned before going to court which seemed totally bizzare. I’m sorry for the 50% that don’t love him that you didn’t have justice served and he didn’t even have to face a trial. I haven’t read your flash but will come back to it. I try to avoid reading them before I write my own.

    1. Ah, and I thought I was as late as could be getting my flash in. I do the same thing, Irene. Many here in the US think it was yet another obstruction of justice…overriding a federal court. Of course we can point to instances of pardons under past presidents, but Trump has an unprecedented knack for imbuing his actions with deeper significance, and a complete disregard for the implications of his decisions. In this case, of course, pardoning the sheriff has only exacerbated the racial tensions that have come to a boil under his watch.

      1. Yes if I had not read your post I would not have even thought to put one in. I thought the next prompt was going to be on the 29th. Come back to read your flash which is beautiful. A little bit of kindness goes so much further than expected and lasts in memory a lifetime.
        Much has come to boil under his watch. Lets hope it cools but he is so unpredictable it is frightening.

        1. Thanks, Irene, for the comment on the flash. As for our leader, sadly this episode is just another paragraph in a long, long book of what appears to be a nefarious and well-coordinated plan to destabilize our government and grow even further the ranks of the extreme right. Many here are hoping the special counsel assigned to uncover the dirty Russia connections kicks into higher gear soon. Makes for great TV though 🙁

  2. This is a beautiful post…topped off with hope and longing for a real kind of heaven.

    And yeah, when Trump made that preposterous statement about Arpaio’s popularity, he was likely using the same magic he did in counting his rally attendance numbers, and those who voted for him for pres. Cuz those who don’t agree with him don’t really exist…Grrr!

    1. Thanks Liz. I think we all get transported through small personal items: to the past, to distant places, to a heaven or our own making. When I dug that memento out, I wondered where that student was today, and also remembered vividly that time in my life. Oh, and yes, I was one of those protesters who wasn’t there in Phoenix at that rally last week.

  3. That opening paragraph is sharp writing, Jeanne! What a beautiful piece of art, and too bad tax-payers money is wasted on such inhumane treatment of inmates because some sheriff has ideas as sick as any gestapo.

    1. I need to go back and put in the link to the Phoenix New Times. They chronicled the abuses for years. Among other waste of taxpayer money, thousands and thousands of $ went down the drain of his defense fund. all in the name of “law and order”!

  4. I read your Flash among the compilation first and was impressed how it captures the importance of an act of kindness in a hellish place. I found it even more moving now I know it’s based on your own experience.
    I didn’t know about the case of this sheriff and, although appalling and shocking, I’m not surprised. There’s a nasty brutality around in its drive to punish rather than repair.
    Hope your son is doing okay at the moment.

    1. Glad to know that our sheriff’s notoriety has been, for the most part, limited to these shores. And no, it’s hardly surprising. His type of law keeping has been around for eons. Sadly, it’s a vision cut from the same cloth as that of our purblind wanna-be strongman. I am honored that you read my flash first! And kind of you to comment about my son. Happily, he is keeping on track. 9 months now.

  5. So, Sweet Jeanne, once again you’ve addressed a difficult issue in a manner both straightforward and nuanced. Poet justice was thwarted with Sheriff Joe’s pardon, as were irony, justice and fairness. Perhaps karma will get him? Let’s hope!


    1. Felt I had to do something with those postcards. Ephemera from an age that I hope we can someday look back upon with astonishment, as we do now of the times of public hangings. Long way to go, I fear. Thanks for popping in!

  6. Jeanne – Great post! He is despicable. You shed light on a monster that is no longer needed. He put in place heartless restraints all to satisfy his need to feel superior. But brutality is a mask for inferiority. I think the disapproval rating is much higher.

    1. I was wondering about that disapproval rate Tery. Got my figure from AZ Central so not sure how accurate it is. Sadly the country is infected with a long strain of men like him, “straight shooters” who see the world in black and white, us and them, good guys and bad guys, the powerful and the weak. No nuance. Thanks for reading!

  7. As usual Jeanne, i love reading your posts and flashes. You are such an extraordinary writer, you always amaze me! Your writing is so powerful as to get your point across, and yet nuanced enough to not offend a flea. I love it. That’s such a gift! I always seem to be in somebodies face!

    1. Thanks Suzanne for dropping by! It’s the readers who make blogging a reward. I appreciate the comment … I still think I manage to offend a few people though :-). In fact, I think it’s our duty to do so if being straight requires it. So, I applaud you for getting in people’s faces when it’s warranted!

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