“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:
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.
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.
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.