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Take Arpaio’s

Prisoners Away?

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Sheriff Joe Arpaio, keep or decline his services? Image by Gage Skidmore and used under the terms of a Creative Commons license.
Instead Trying To Defeat Sheriff Joe At The Ballot Box, Should Opposition Unite To Stop Cities From Using County Jail Services?

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By Charlie Parke
Special for Modern Times Magazine

Sept. 24, 2012 — On Monday, Sept. 17, a group of more than 100 protesters gathered at Cesar Chavez Plaza in Phoenix and marched through the downtown area for the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.

Several groups that have worked with the Occupy movement such as Puente, Phoenix Norml, Veterans for Peace Phoenix, Woman in Black Phoenix, Code Pink Phoenix, Alliance for Peace and Justice Phoenix, the End the War Coalition, LUCHA, Tona Tierra and others joined in and spoke out against big banks, corporate power, the student debt crisis, and the U.S. Department of Justice dropping the investigations of Goldman Sachs and Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

The most common string that ties these disparate groups is the shared dislike of the Maricopa County Sheriff. The list of reasons why opposition has built against Arpaio is long, but for many, his most heinous transgressions are his treatment of the immigrant population and prisoners in his jails.

Some of these groups have been involved in voter registration and are supporting and campaigning for Paul Penzone to replace Arpaio.

But maybe those that want to an end to such abuses should also look to strip away the powers of a Maricopa County Sheriff's Office that is too big and powerful — under any one's leadership. Penzone included.

There are eight county jails under the supervision of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. They include: Fourth Avenue, Durango, Estrella, First Avenue, Lower Buckeye, Madison, Towers, and the controversial Tent City. Across the entire Maricopa County jailing operation, there are around 10,000 inmates at any given time. According to the Sheriff’s office, they are the fourth largest booking agency in the country.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s power comes from the integrated nature of his office in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country. Arpaio’s office generates a higher revenue, requires more deputies and houses more prisoners because he houses most prisoners arrested for anything but minor crimes for the entire legal system from all the cities in the Phoenix metropolitan area.

But almost everyone he houses have just been arrested, have yet to be proven guilty or are serving sentences of a few months.

The contract between the city of Phoenix and MCSO for jail services ends in mid-2013. To terminate the contract, 180 days — about six months — notice is required and that deadline is almost here.

If the groups opposed to Arpaio — Puente, Phoenix Normal, Veterans for Peace Phoenix, Woman in Black Phoenix, Code Pink Phoenix, Alliance for Peace and Justice Phoenix, the End the War Coalition, LUCHA, Tona Tierra and even the Valley Anarchist’s Circle — banded together and focused on ending this contract, they would cut the sheriff off from running the jails in Phoenix and from all the income from each inmate housed there.

And they would be able to accomplish this regardless of who wins this November.

Under MCSO’s management, a number of controversies have surrounded the county jails, including deaths. All told, Maricopa County has had to shell out more than $13 million in injury and death claims since 1998, according to the Arizona Republic.

It appears likely that while most are focused on the election, the contract between Phoenix and MCSO will renew until 2018 and it would be unlikely that the city would be willing to exit the contract mid-term — regardless of who is elected November, or in 2016 for that matter.

If the city of Phoenix continues to send their prisoners to the county, the scope of the Maricopa Sheriff’s power will continue to be enormous.

Joining together to convince the city of Phoenix to not renew their contract with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office would seem to fit the message of Occupy and the march: that power is in the hands of few.

Who does Phoenix turn to run Fourth Avenue jail if they terminate their contract with MCSO? Surely, several options may exist, such as the city of Phoenix running the jail directly, which might open the city to direct lawsuits if conditions don’t improve or the city could find a private contractor which would prove difficult with the time crunch.

However, as this march attests, the city government of Phoenix has seen regular protests at the Fourth Avenue jail during the first year of Occupy and have had time to consider making changes to alleviate tensions. Protests, for the most part, come about because of problems the government or corporations doesn’t appear to be addressing-leaving concerned citizens to find a means of getting media and larger public attention in hopes of getting problems addressed.

Most Occupiers don’t seem to think being part of the 1% makes one automatically evil, but that the concentration of wealth and its ability to influence politicians and law leaves the people powerless. This is what led Occupy to embrace people’s assemblies where each person has a right to speak equally, and why Occupy works without elected or appointed leaders.  

Sheriff Arpaio is ultimately only one man. While his treatment of prisoners and the immigrant population are controversial, he can only carry much of this out while cities like Phoenix and Guadalupe contract services to him.

Perhaps this year we shouldn’t be focused so much on the election, but on actually breaking down the power that allowed many of alleged transgressions happen in the first place.

Charlie Parke is an activist living in Phoenix. You can reach him at firstfridayman@hotmail.com.
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