Running Maricopa County's jail system is no small job.
This year it will cost taxpayers about $129 million to house, feed and watch over an estimated 120,000 men and women who will spend time behind bars in the system's five jails.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been running them for 12 years and voters will decide Nov. 2 whether he deserves another four or if the job should go to Democrat Robert Ayala or independent W. Steven Martin.
Both challengers have promised changes to the system if they win, and if Arpaio wins, his policies could soon be on trial as several jail-related lawsuits arising out of inmate deaths are pending in court.
That doesn't worry Arpaio, though, since his jails have been under scrutiny by the U.S. Justice Department, the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the news media and trial lawyers most of his three terms. "Everybody's looked at all my operations," Arpaio said.
For years, the number of inmates in Maricopa County Jailjails kept growing, but not the number of detention officers or the walls of the jails.
Since August 2001, detention officers have received two "market rate adjustments" and a 4 percent increase this year, while new recruit salaries increased by 24 percent.
A voter-approved one-fifth cent sales tax funded the construction of two new jails, restoration of two others, and the hiring of 1,329 detention officers. The tax will be in place to fund the operations of the jails until 2027 or when $900 million is collected. Robert Verdeyen, director of standards and accreditation for the American Correctional Association, said severe crowding isn't necessarily a problem in jails as long as there are plenty of employees, they are well-trained and inmates are kept busy.
Arpaio's way of dealing with crowding in a cost-effective manner was to open Maricopa County’s Tent City Jail, a place where inmates live in military surplus tents exposed to the heat and cold. The policy helped make Arpaio an international celebrity. A search of a news database found 133 stories from newspapers around the world containing the words "Arpaio" and "Tent City" printed in the last 10 years.
"That was originally the source of his popularity because it was different, it was good for taxpayers," said Jason Rose, a campaign spokesman and publics relations consultant. "People who got DUIs didn't want to go back there. It was a deterrent."
The 11-year-old facility, whose average inmate population is 1,340, also became a symbol of his critics' allegations of abuse of power.
Martin said he would keep Tent City but it would be only for nonviolent, first-time offenders, making it safer.
He said he will be tough on the criminals who have proven to be troublemakers rather than the people who are stuck in jail simply because they can't make bail or are serving time for a minor offense.
"Tough isn't the color of the underwear," said Martin, referring to Arpaio-ordered inmate underwear that is dyed pink.
Ayala says he'll get rid of Tent City if elected because it is part of Arpaio's policies designed to "humiliate and degrade" people.
Verdeyen said determining whether a jail is well-run can be very subjective, but there are standards that constitute "best practices."
"A well-run jail is those administrators that recognize the constitutional rights of the offenders and adhere to a code that says you'll provide human, safe confinement for the offenders and that staff is in an environment where they can feel safe to exercise their own responsibilities," Verdeyen said.
A 2000 Arizona Court of Appeals decision upholding a judgement against the county paints a bleak picture of Tent City, where hard-core inmates are mixed with nonviolent inmates, where Arpaio said he was "entertaining drug dealers and sex offenders and murderers, too, with no more than two or three detention officers guarding them at any one time."
The danger inmates can pose to other inmates in the tents also has been cited.
One case involved Jeremy Flanders, who was serving a yearlong sentence for burglary when he was attacked in his tent by other inmates who used a tent stake to beat him over the head. He suffered permanent brain damage.
A jury awarded him $797,887 and the county also paid $162,157 in defense costs, making it one of the most costly claims against Arpaio's office, according to court records.
The court of appeals said the jury properly determined "the sheriff was callously indifferent to the Eighth Amendment's requirements and to the exposure of Tent City inmates to serious injury."
STANDING BY POLICY
Arpaio said nothing has changed at Tent City since the September 2002 appellate court decision except theythe jail will begin phasing in more solid structures that are better secured into the ground.
"I don't get rid of programs because of one decision. That's a great program. In history, it's probably the greatest incarceration program," Arpaio said.
Other common complaints by inmates are lack of medical care and excessive force.
Robert Dillon, a former detainee who received a $135,000 settlement from the county for his civil complaint that employees of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and Phoenix Police Department shot him in the chest and testicles with a stun gun, strapped him in a restraint chair and sprayed him in the face with chemical foam.
And former inmate James Cameron recently received a $25,000 settlement from the county after he alleged in court that he was refused treatment for a spider bite in jail and landed in the hospital for 12 days.
Another decision could be coming in a Tent City case.
The family of Phillip Wilson, a 40-year-old inmate serving a sentence in Tent City for a probation violation, sued Arpaio for wrongful death this year. Wilson was beaten July 22, 2003, into a vegetative state and died Nov. 18, 2003.
"Although Phillip's death would have been tragic under any circumstances, the fact that the county has known about these conditions, but has taken no real steps to cure them and to protect the lives of those incarcerated in Tent City, demonstrates its callous disregard for life," wrote attorney Michael Manning, who represents the Wilson family.
Manning also is involved in a lawsuit representing the family of Scottsdale resident Charles Agster, who died three days after a scuffle with detention officers who placed him in a restraint chair.