[ You may remember back in August 2017 that President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio. But most left out an even bigger reason why he is truly evil: his Arizona women’s tent city prisons. Below is a description of one from Johann Hari’s 2016 book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last days of the War on Drugs”, even better than any of the few news media who reported on this.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]
The female chain gang meets at five o’clock every weekday morning, just as the sun is starting to rise over the Arizona desert. The women emerge unfed from the tents, surrounded by barbed wire, as they are ordered to put on T-shirts that display to the world why they are here. I WAS A DRUG ADDICT, it says in bold black letters you can read from a distance. I watch as they clamber into their striped uniforms, their limbs flailing with hunger and exhaustion. Then they put on leg-irons. Then the guards order them to begin their chant. Everywhere we go, People want to know, Who we are, So we tell them We are the chain gang, The only female chain gang. They have to stamp their boots and jangle their chains in rhythm to the song, as though they are the chorus line in some dystopian Broadway musical. And so their march out into the desert heat begins. Some days they are made to bury dead bodies. Today, they clamber into a bus. They are being taken, they are told, to a parched, trash-strewn traffic island in the 110-degree heat and ordered to collect trash, in front of signs urging people to vote for the politician who has pioneered this particular form of punishment.
When they step out into the sun, the women are shoved a bottle of sunscreen. The expiration date on the bottle, I notice, is 2009—three years earlier. It comes out as a thick paste. One girl is free3 of the chains. It is her job to nail into place a sign that says CAUTION! SHERIFF’S CHAIN GANG AT WORK! and to fetch water for women when they are on the brink of collapse. Gabba is a pale, bony nineteen-year-old Italian American. As I follow her around, she tells me that she was thrown out by her parents as a teenager and started using heroin. “It was my escape,” she says, looking down.
I can see Candice staggering around, looking fazed. She is a blond woman in her twenties with an inflamed red face that looks as if it is being slowly eaten by something. It is bleeding where she has scratched it too hard. The doctors have told her it is an allergic reaction to the bleach they use in the tents, she says, but there is no alternative for her.
She ran away from her family when she was fourteen and joined the carnival, and she started using meth there. “It was the best thing I ever had in my life—it made the bad feelings go away,” she told me, scratching. “I’m afraid to get released because I don’t know what I’m going to do. It numbs all the bad feelings. It makes me not feel anything.” Like everyone else, Candice is sweating constantly in this heat, and the salt in her sweat is making the rash burn.
The other T-shirts the women are forced to wear say I AM BREAKING THE NEED FOR WEED, CLEAN(ING) AND SOBER, and METH USER. Michelle, an older former meth user, says to me as she collects rubbish awkwardly: “A lot of people didn’t have a lot of dignity to begin with, to come here, and what they did have is taken away. Everything . . . [is] about humiliating us until there’s nothing left.” A few hours after she tells me this, when she has been in the desert sun all this time covered only with out-of-date paste, Michelle starts vomiting4 and shaking, and has to be held up by the rest of the chain.
The day before, when I mentioned Harry Anslinger’s name to the man who invented this chain gang—along with a slew of other ways to punish addicts—his face beamed big and wide.
He had Harry’s signature on his wall, staring down at him as he worked. To him, Anslinger was a hero, a role model, the man who started it all. He kept repeating Anslinger’s name in our conversation as though stroking a purring cat: “When you go back to Anslinger—you got a good guy here!”5 Harry Anslinger employed Joe Arpaio in 1957 to be an agent in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and he rose through the bureau over decades. Since 1993, he has been the elected sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. He was eighty when I met him, and about to be elected to his sixth consecutive term. His Stetson, his shining lawman’s badge, and his sneer have become national symbols of a particular kind of funhouse-mirror Americana, and his hefty chunk of Arizona, home to nearly four million people, is now Harry Anslinger’s last great laboratory. Sheriff Joe has built a jail that he refers to publicly as his “concentration camp,” and presidential candidates flock here during election campaigns, emerging full of praise. Anslinger said addicts were “lepers” who needed to be “quarantined,” and so Arpaio has built a leper colony for them in the desert.
The guards have also ordered them to chant warnings that they will be given electric shocks if they dare to talk back: We’re in stripes They’re in brown [meaning the guards] We walk in chains with them close by We dare not run, we dare not hide Don’t you dare give them no lip ’Cause they got tasers on their hip.
This isn’t an idle chant: in the jails and prisons of Arizona, several inmates have been tasered to death.
Back in the prison, the women are unshackled and strip-searched to see if they have any drugs in their vaginas or anuses. They live in tents that Arpaio got the military to donate for nothing. Many of the tents are from the Korean War. At night, you can hear the low scuttle of scorpions and the squeak of mice venturing out from the nearby trash dump. In the winter, it is freezing. In the summer, the heat hits you like an unimaginably vast hairdryer pointed at your face. Inside the tents, the temperature hits 140 degrees.
There is a well-built air-conditioned prison nearby, but Joe Arpaio has thrown these prisoners out of it and turned it into an animal shelter.
The first time I enter Tent City, the prisoners crowd around me, trying desperately to explain what is happening. “This is hell!” one of them shrieks. They are given two meals a day, costing 15 cents each. It is referred to by guards and inmates as “slop”—a brownish gloop of unspecified meat that Arpaio boasted to a reporter contained “rotten” lumps, and costs at most 40 cents a meal. People from the outside can give you money to buy small items from the commissary, like potato chips, but there are plenty of inmates who have nobody willing or able to give them money, so they live in a state of constant hunger. The prisoners are never allowed to touch their visitors: it all has to be done by video. Your children can be brought into a visiting room, but you will be handcuffed to the table and not allowed to touch them in any way, no matter what age they are. Even when the child cries “Momma, Momma” and asks for a hug, the prisoner cannot reach out, and has to watch her child crying, helpless. The guards, the women say, openly mock and abuse them: “They think it’s funny,” one woman says, “to see us down. To see us without our children.” Another tells me: “It’s like they’re trained to be brutal.
The next day, I return to take down more details—but something has changed. The prisoners who hurried to me yesterday, full of pain, face away from me now. When I approach them in the tents, they are mute, and simply shake their heads. I walk from one to another: they all refuse to talk, and when I keep asking, they try to shoo me away. The cacophony has been replaced by a perfect silence. One
woman grabs at me as I pass and says that she’s sorry she can’t talk to me but she’d like to shake my hand. As she does, I realize she is passing me a tiny folded note. I open it later. “If I speak the truth to you I will go to the Hole and it’s awful, you have nothing. Please understand, I’d like to talk to you but I can’t. They are watching us,” it says. “We all got in trouble yesterday after you left. Please don’t let no-one see this note.
I find a psychologist named Jorge de la Torre. His job is to provide some counseling for the women here. He has a weary air about him, as if he has misplaced something and can’t quite find it. Some 90 percent of the inmates are here because of a drug related problem and virtually all are from traumatized backgrounds. At any one time, Jorge can treat 1 in 100 of them.
The author goes on to say that unfortunately, this is not a freakish outlier of a prison, and the rest of the chapter goes further into the nightmare injustices prisoners endure.