Punishment or Sadism?
The barbaric treatment of prisoners in Sheriff Joe’s jail By: Simon Eddisbury
Human rights abuse is a phenomenon that is typically associated with the likes of China and North Korea, but what if I was to tell you that non-violent drug offenders in the United States were being fed food that was labelled as â€œUnfit for Human Consumptionâ€ and denied the right to basic medical attention? Joe Arpaio, Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, prides himself on the harsh treatment of the prisoners within his jail; but where do you draw the line between punishment and sadistic acts of abuse and degradation? I caught up with Shaun â€œEnglish Shaunâ€ Attwood, author and a former prisoner, to find out exactly what goes on behind the gates of Maricopa Jail.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you ended up in the prison system in the first place?
I knowingly broke the law many years ago and take full responsibility for putting myself in Arpaioâ€™s jail. I tried to transfer the Manchester rave scene to Phoenix, including club drugs like ecstasy [Manchester is a city in North England known locally as a setting for illegal ecstasy-fuelled dance music events in the 1990s]. I was convicted for talking about drugs on the phone and accepting a cheque for drugs.
What did you think about the conditions of the prisons that you were in?
At first, I went into shock. The violence was constant. Gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood held daily kangaroo courts that determined who lived and died. I had to get used to the sounds of heads getting bashed against toilets and bodies getting thrown around. It was hard to watch bodies getting carried out on stretchers. One of the earliest ones I saw looked dead with yellow fluid leaking from his head. Arpaioâ€™s jail has the highest death rate out of all the jails and prisons in America. Also, trying to sleep with cockroaches crawling on me gave me a nervous breakdown.
Joe Arpaio has come under fire for allegedly denying the inmates within his jail access to medical care. Would you say there is some truth to those allegations?
Absolutely!Â To see a doctor, you had to beg a guard for a form called a Medical Tank Order. If the guard was in a good mood, he might give you one on his next security walk. You then had to return the form to the guard, get him to sign it, and hope that it survived its journey through various departments to the medical staff. The medical staff decided who got seen and who didnâ€™t. Depending upon how serious they deemed the nature of your complaint, theyâ€™d call you to medical in a few days time at the earliest, or alternatively, theyâ€™d call you weeks or months later or not at all. The medical staff operated under the assumption that most of the sick inmates were fakers. They often turned away genuine cases, resulting in a few deaths every year.
What about the stories that the jail served prisoners food thatÂ had beenÂ labelled as being unfit for human consumption?
Again, true! Some of the containers with these labels were stolen by inmates and given to attorneys who were suing the jail. I spoke to inmates who had worked in the kitchen and they said they were ordered to serve canned food from the 1970s.
How many of your fellow inmates do you think were serving time for non-violent drug-related offences?
Do you think that those who commit drug-related offences are punished proportionally to the crimes that they have committed?
In America, you are punished in proportion to how much money you have to pay for an attorney and to bribe local officials with by making political contributions.
How easy are drugs to obtain behind bars?
Jails and prisons are flooded with drugs. Itâ€™s big business for the gangs and for the corrupt guards. It seems to be allowed by the staff as a form of control.
Do you think that it is counterproductive to lockup drug users in an environment where drugs are so readily available?
Yes, potheads turn into heroin users. Hundreds of men are sharing a dirty needle and up to two thirds of the inmates I was housed with had hepatitis C.
Some might argue that those who break the law deserve to be kept in inhumane conditions. How would you respond to their claims?
Prisons shouldnâ€™t be holiday camps, but there are minimum standards for inmate conditions established in the federal court system, and Arpaio has been in flagrant violation of these for years. Inmates have a right not to live in insect-infested environments and to have so many calories of edible food per day, not some slop that sometimes had dead rats in it, which caused regular outbreaks of food poisoning. When you treat inmates like animals, some of them will return to society and behave like animals.
How long were you imprisoned for before you were actually convicted of a crime?
What were the levels of violence like in the prison? Do you think that the authorities were negligent in their duty to protect those within their charge?
The authorities were murdering the inmates as well. Some examples are Brian Crenshaw and Charles Agster.
For the purpose of the readers, legally blind Brian Crenshaw was serving a sentence for shoplifting and had never committed a violent offence. He was found with a broken neck, serious internal injuries, and several broken toes after an altercation with an officer. Arpaioâ€™s official stance was that he had fallen off his bunk, which was only 4â€™2â€ high. Mentally handicapped Charles Agster was yet another casualty of Sheriff Joeâ€™s brutal regime. He died after being jumped on, punched, and strapped into a restraint chair. Amnesty International openly condemned his treatment, stating that â€œthe degree of force used against Agster was grossly disproportionate to any threat posed by him.â€ He had been arrested on a misdemeanour loitering charge.
One reporter told me that Arpaioâ€™s jail has paid out 50 million dollars in lawsuits, which is more than the top five jails combined. The violence and death rate is off the scale.
The American prison system has been heavily criticized for theÂ worrying levels of sexual assaults that take place. Would you say that more could be done to prevent these incidents?
The guards couldnâ€™t care less. The gangs have free reign to prey on people violently and sexually.
How would you respond to those who claim that poor living conditions for prisoners will discourage them from re-offending?
Phoenix has one of the highest crime rates in America. Sheriff Joe Arpaio states that recidivism in the jails was reduced during his time as sheriff, but the truth is that Sheriff Joe Arpaio spent $10,000 in taxpayer money to have Arizona State University study recidivism in the jail system. The results showed that there was no change in the rate at which inmates returned to jail. Sheriff Joe Arpaio immediately declared that A.S.U. was wrong.
Do you think prison has helped to rehabilitate you?
Yes, I am the poster child for Arpaioâ€™s jail, but it doesnâ€™t work for the majority. They get recruited by the gangs, cover themselves in tattoos, graduate to harder drug use (mostly injecting meth and heroin), and are released as enemies of society.
What was the scariest moment of your sentence?
Being told that I was facing anywhere from a life sentence to 200 years.
Were there any times when you felt like you couldnâ€™t go on?
I contemplated suicide and thought about slashing my wrists and bleeding out on my bunk, but Iâ€™d look at photos of my fiancÃ©e, mum, dad, and sister, and it would give me the strength to soldier on.
What are your plans now that you are a free man again?
I shared my experience with over 10,000 students last year and I will speak to even more this year. The constant emails I get from them that say theyâ€™ve been putting off drugs and crime, and that my story has inspired them, gives me a good feeling. I will also continue to write because my life story is coming out as a trilogy.
The first part of Shaunâ€™s life story, Hard Time: Life with Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Americaâ€™s Toughest Jail, is available from Skyhorse Publishing. It provides a shocking account of the numerous human rights violations that have been committed in Sheriff Joeâ€™s jail, proving that Americaâ€™s war on drugs is not without its casualties.