TV reality shows have given us some memorable cult heroes, including American Idol's William Hung, Survivor's Rupert Boneham and extreme fighter Kimbo Slice, just to name a few.Reality shows have also led to new careers for aging stars like Hulk Hogan and Ozzy Osbourne.
But the eyes of the nation, or at least those few viewers who can get the Fox Reality Channel, will now be on Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona.
Maricopa County includes the Phoenix area and has a population of about four million, which is greater than that of 24 states.
Arpaio is starring in the new Fox series, "Smile...You're Under Arrest!", in which people with outstanding warrants are actually tricked into getting caught.
Arpaio, who has proclaimed himself to be "America's Toughest Sheriff," is a natural for the part. He was first elected in 1993, and has been comfortably returned to office ever since, despite his controversial methods of enforcing the law. To avoid releasing convicts due to prison overcrowding, Sheriff Joe created the "Tent City Jail," a barbed-wire-surrounded outdoor encampment for 2,000 prisoners at the county Big House. They sleep on cots, with no pillows. And while no heat is necessary in the winter, things can get a bit warm in the summer. The average high is in the triple digits. Winners on "Smile..." will receive an all-expenses paid vacation there. Well, not all expenses....
Inmates in Maricopa County pay a dollar a day for their two meals, which consist of bologna sandwiches, among other things. Arpaio once growled, "It costs more to feed our police dogs than tourinmates.
The dogs never committed a crime, and they're working for a living."
In 1994, Arpaio eliminated coffee from jails, to protect inmates and guards from hot-liquid assaults. And to save money. Salt and pepper followed. When the inmates complained, he told them, "This isn't The RitzCarlton. If you don't like it, don't come back."
But Joe has a soft streak. During the worst of the heat, he gives the inmates permission to strip down to their government issued pink boxer shorts and pink socks, while they bathe themselves with their wet pink towels. An inmate who lived in the tents for more than a year told the Associated Press, "It feels like we are in a furnace. It's inhumane." Joe's reply: "It's 120 degrees in Iraq, and our soldiers are living in tents, too. And they have to wear full battle gear. But they didn't commit any crimes, so shut your mouths!"
Sheriff Joe has also instituted a few other changes. He stopped all smoking and access to porno magazines. He took away the weights that inmates used to pump themselves up, and cut off all but G-rated movies. He started chain gangs so the inmates could do free work on county and city projects, like pulling weeds and clearing brush. In 1996, he put the first female chain gang to work, because "I don't believe in discrimination in my jail system. Crime knows no gender, and neither should punishment."
Although prisoners are permitted access to cable TV, Sheriff Joe limits their choices to family fare like The Disney Channel and The Weather Channel. Why the Weather Channel? "I think my chain gang deserves to know how hot it is when they hit the streets." Joe also shows Newt Gingrich's 10-part videotape lecture series, "Renewing American Civilization," which focuses on the traditional values of hard work, patriotism and discipline. KJOE, Arpaio's radio station, broadcasts classical music, opera, obscenity-free patriotic music and educational programming.
For those Americans who are struggling with utility bills, high food prices and the soaring cost of living, Sheriff Joe's philosophy might make a great deal of sense: criminals should be punished for their crimes-not live in luxury on taxpayer money, and enjoy things taxpayers can't afford themselves. Yet, despite 15 years of his alternative methods, he acknowledges that he has the same repeat offender rate as the national average, about 60 to 70 percent.
But Arpaio, a 25-year DEA agent, also has instituted a drug program for inmates, and it boasts a recidivism rate among graduates of only 13 to 15 percent. Maricopa County prisons require non-English speaking prisoners to take English classes. "The inmates need to speak English," says Sheriff Joe. "My guards don't need to speak Spanish. We're in America." His "Hard Knocks High" claims to be the only approved high school program in any American jail.
Despite his draconian ways, Sheriff Joe can be warm and fuzzy. In 2007, the county was spending approximately $18 million a year on stray animals. Sheriff Joe was instrumental in opening the Maricopa Animal Safe Hospice (MASH), a no-kill shelter operated in a 30-year old former jail, which had been closed since 1999 because of plumbing problems. While no longer suitable for humans, it is air conditioned, and a paradise for neglected and abused animals that have been rescued by the county's Animal Cruelty Unit.
In fact, all Maricopa County animal shelters are now staffed and operated by prisoners. They feed and care for the strays. Every animal is taken out and walked twice daily. Prisoners have become experts in animal nutrition and behavior, and give classes for anyone who'd like to adopt an animal. Stray dogs off the street, under the care of prisoners, have placed in dog shows. And the best part is that the budget for the entire department is now less than $3 million. Prisoners are paid out of the fees collected for adoptions.
Sheriff Joe also runs a large farm, donated to the county years ago, where inmates grow most of their own fresh vegetables and food, doing all the planting, fertilizing and harvesting by hand. There is also a hog farm, that provides meat and fertilizer. It fertilizes the tree nursery, where prisoners work, and residents can buy an inexpensive live tree for their yards, or for Christmas.
In 2007, Sheriff Joe started a hotline for citizens to report alleged illegal aliens living and working in Maricopa County. He publicized it by painting murals on the sides of four department trucks and eight inmate vans, with the phone number, and signs reading "Do Not Enter Illegally" and "Help Sheriff Joe Arpaio Fight Illegal Immigration and Trafficking." Critics complained that this was a form of racial profiling. Joe couldn't care less. And he probably won't care what the TV critics say about "Smile...You're Under Arrest." We're talking America's Toughest Sheriff.
Richard Woldow lives in Ivyland, Bucks County. He is the owner of the Quakertown Farmers Market. A former journalist, his columns regularly appear in the Quakertown Free Press. He can be contacted via his Web site, www.woldow.com, or via the editor at email@example.com