If you tuned into CNN last weekend, you may have seen a press conference with NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley and a plump, hatchet-faced lawman who calls himself “the toughest sheriff in America,” Joe Arpaio. You may have caught Sheriff Joe making clear with a feral smile that no, Barkley would not be required to “wear the pink underwear.” It was American law enforcement at its ugliest.
Barkley, the fast-living, big-drinking, loud-talking NBA player turned commentator, was pulled over on December 31 for driving while intoxicated. The former hoops superstar was fined $2,000, sentenced to an alcohol treatment program and ordered to install an ignition interlock device on his cars. He also had to spend three days at Sheriff Joe’s notorious Tent City prison. Barkley’s experience was hardly typical for Tent City. He was given his own tent, where he could eat meals in privacy. He wasn’t served food surplus like the prison’s infamous green bologna for meals. He didn’t have to listen to the prison radio station, KJOE, which plays all of Sheriff Joe’s favorite hits. He could wear a red Nike tracksuit instead of the prison jumpsuit. He also participated in the press conference where Arpaio plugged his book, America’s Toughest Sheriff: How We Can Win the War Against Crime.
And, as mentioned, he didn’t have to wear the pink underwear Sheriff Joe favors for those under his thumb. But there was even more “Chuck” didn’t have to do as a resident of Tent City.
Sheriff Joe doesn’t only enjoy the thrill of knowing that his prisoners are pretty in pink. He has been known to parade the undocumented immigrants among them in shackles, wearing only their state-supplied pink underwear in front of a bevy of armed guards and a gaggle of television cameras. The mainstream media didn’t travel into the dry desert heat to expose Sheriff Joe’s tactics. They came because they received the press release, written by Sheriff Joe himself. In one of Sheriff Joe’s “advisories,” he made note of the state-of-the-art electric fence, promising that it would give “quite a shock–literally” to any escapees.
The Tent City also subjects the underwear-clad prisoners to the crushing Arizona heat, something Barkley, who was on “work release” from 8 am to 8 pm, was able to avoid. It can get blisteringly hot. Sheriff Joe’s response to safety concerns was to say, “It’s 120 degrees in Iraq and the soldiers are living in tents, and they didn’t commit any crimes, so shut your mouths.” This attitude is the reason why Maricopa County has had to pay out $43 million under Sheriff Joe’s leadership in wrongful death and injury cases.