Unequal justice in Maricopa County is everywhere, even in Tent City

27 May 2013 06:55 pm
Posted by: Donna

Hi all! I have a Very Special Memorial Day post for you guys.

Investigative journalist and former US Senate candidate John Dougherty had this response to Friday’s announcement that a federal court has stripped the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office to do immigration enforcement due to repeated civil rights violations and evidence of racial profiling:

My first interview with Joe Arpiao was in in the fall of 1993. I wrote a story in Phoenix New Times that Arpaio had no regard for the Constitutional rights of those who have been arrested, but not convicted of a crime. It’s distressing that two decades have past, many have died, more have been abused, lives shattered by a renegade sheriff who manipulated a fawning media to keep his machine rolling. The Arizona Republic for many years perpetuated the Arpaio legend and shares blame for allowing this atrocity of civil rights and justice to have gone as long as it has. May the recall deliver justice and move Maricopa County, and Arizona,into a new era of justice, community and freedom.

Dougherty is absolutely right about the major role that fawning, uncritical media coverage played in allowing Arpaio to get away with his vicious jails and racism (I, and Dougherty I’m sure, would also indict local TV news and talk radio stations in that). But fawning media only tells part of the story.

It’s obvious that many Maricopa County residents shrug off the racial and poverty profiling of the MCSO on the streets because they have nothing, personally, to worry about because of it. “If you’re not doing anything wrong you have nothing to fear.” Sheriff Joe’s popularity rides on the belief that he’s enforcing tough law ‘n order against “those people” who we should assume are up to no good. He’s keeping “us” safe from “them”.

But wait a second! There are some lawbreakers, who happen to make up a large percentage of the arrests in Maricopa County, who go to Tent City but don’t get the real Tent City experience. Those would be people who get DUIs. And I feel like I cannot continue with this post until I make an admission: I got a DUI in November, 2002. I stupidly drove under the influence in Chandler (dumb, dumb, dumb!), got pulled over, and faced a penalty of one day in the Maricopa County jail. This is a decade old memory so I’ll try to describe it as best I can.

I showed up for my day in jail in May, 2003, which I had picked out from a calendar at my hearing (seriously, they put up a calendar and allowed me to pick the day most convenient for me). I arrived at the Durango Street Jail and then spent several hours in a receiving cell that smelled like swamp ass, in close quarters with several other women. Most of us were DUI idiots, but at several times we were joined by girls from the “Horse Shoe”, who had committed other crimes and had spent a fair bit of time in the Maricopa County jail. They regaled us with stories of their lives outside and inside jail. I will always say of my time in the Maricopa County jail that I hated the accommodations but I loved the entertainment. At no time did I fear for my safety. The only time I interacted with the “general population” was for the few hours I spent in the nasty holding cell during intake and release. We DUIs got our own separate section of tents where the guards were polite and addressed us as “ma’am”..

I never wore the stripes, didn’t go on a chain gang, and didn’t eat the jail food. I was only there for one day, but I was there with women serving longer terms. They were there for second or extreme DUIs, without aggravating factors. They had sentences ranging from 2 to 30 days. They didn’t wear stripes either. When you are sent to jail for more than 2 days for DUI you are eligible for work release five days a week. You get to leave the jail 12 hours a day, leaving you with plenty of time to eat regular food. On the weekends you are required to spend in the jail you simply forego eating or get stuff from the vending machine. It is possible to avoid the infamous green balogna for your entire sentence if you are in Maricopa County jail for a DUI.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s no picnic. But Tent City for DUIs is basically an amped-up Scared Straight program that is not much like what life is like in there for other inmates. I don’t know exactly why DUIs are treated differently but I suspect it has to do with the fact that people at all socio-economic levels get them. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, successful business people, and celebrities are picked up for DUIs. Many are able to afford expensive lawyers for lighter sentences.

This privileged sector within Tent City (for “us”) is not only unjust, but it has allowed Sheriff Arpaio to enjoy the continued support of the public for the horrific way he mistreats the other prisoners (“them”). Imagine how things might be different today had some wealthy white socialites picked up for DUIs in Scottsdale ever been subjected to the same conditions in Tent City as poor undocumented immigrant women picked up in South Phoenix typically are. I’ve got a strong feeling they would be.

Hope everyone had a safe and happy holiday weekend.


  1. Comment by Mike Slater on May 29, 2013 1:19 pm

    Do the crime, do the time.

  2. Comment by Donna on May 29, 2013 1:34 pm

    Mike, do you actually read my posts or do you simply look at the headline and then spout whatever right wing cliche is triggered in your brain into my comments section?

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