Democracy Dies in Darkness

PostEverything | Perspective

The year I spent in Joe Arpaio's tent jail was hell. He should never walk free.

By Francisco Chairez

August 26, 2017 at 12:20 PM

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Francisco Chairez, who spent a year in one of Maricopa County's notorious tent jails, says President Trump's pardon of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio is unfair to people like him who paid their debt to society. (Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, Jesse Mesner-Hage/The Washington Post)

I was born in Mexico, grew up in Tijuana, and moved to Arizona when I was 14. I went to high school in a small town called Holbrook, then went to Phoenix to go to Arizona State University. By that time, roughly 2012, Joe Arpaio's vicious anti-Latino tactics had already raised racial tensions in Maricopa County, where he was sheriff.

At the time, Arpaio was infamous among my community for his "sweeps." He would send police into restaurants, hotels or anywhere else he suspected undocumented people might be working and would arrest those who couldn't produce IDs. People lived in fear of these sweeps; some families I knew even moved to New Mexico, hoping to escape Arpaio.

I heard all about Arpaio's crusades firsthand. By 2014, I was working as a court interpreter for Maricopa County. Every day, I would interpret for Spanish-speaking people who had been arrested by Arpaio in the desert, trying to come to the United States to work. Arpaio's men would arrest them and put them in detention facilities for months, holding them until they took a plea agreement — so he could get a conviction for them on the record. That way, if they ever tried to return to the United States, they would be placed in federal prison.

Related: [I was one of Joe Arpaio’s victims. He doesn’t deserve a pardon.]

That same year, I got into a bad relationship and I drove while drunk, causing an accident in which another person was injured, which in Arizona is classed as aggravated assault. I was arrested, and it took the county an entire year to prosecute me. I thought it was the worst year of my life, until I was convicted and sent to one of Arpaio's jails.

The minute I turned myself in to go to jail, they took me to the Fourth Avenue jail, the county's hub for all arrests. There, they put me through something called "the Matrix": being moved from one cell to another for about 12 continuous hours. It was extremely cold, and all I was allowed to wear underneath the striped uniform I was given was underwear and flip-flops. Guards threw me a bag with old bread, an orange and milk; nothing else was offered, and sleeping was nearly impossible. I laid for hours on cold concrete, only to be hustled abruptly to another cell, and then another. Finally, they put me in chains and moved me to another jail by bus.

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Post editorial writer Quinta Jurecic says President Trump's reprehensible, and legal, pardon of former sheriff Joe Arpaio reveals weaknesses in the American system of government. (Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

I arrived at one of Arpaio's several "tent cities," outdoor jails where inmates shelter in army tents, mostly exposed to the Arizona elements. I was there on a work furlough program, meaning that I was allowed to leave to work during the day. Every day after work, I would return to the jail and spend the night in the tents. Each Sunday was spent entirely in the jail.

Related: [Trump’s first pardon spares political ally Joe Arpaio]

Joe Arpaio was the sheriff in Maricopa County, Ariz. (Darren Hauck/European Pressphoto Agency)

The rules of the tent city were strict, arbitrary and brutally enforced. There are no newspapers allowed; Arpaio hated newspapers. The only food allowed for those of us in the work furlough program was the food in the vending machines, which was grossly overpriced.

During the sweltering summer, the temperature could reach 115 or 120 degrees. I was in the tents when we hit 120. It was impossible to stay cool in the oppressive heat. Everyone would strip down to their underwear. There was no cold water, only water from vending machines; and eventually, the machines would run out. People would faint; some had heatstroke. That summer, ambulances came about three times. One man died in his bed.

But the winter was even worse. During the winter, there were no heaters. Most jackets and heavily insulated pants weren't allowed; they don't want you to be comfortable.

When the temperatures dropped, we were forced to come up with makeshift ways to keep ourselves warm. The showers were kept scalding hot during both summer and winter. We hated to shower, but we would fill our empty water bottles up with the nearly boiling water and put the bottles between our blankets when it was freezing outside. We also would save the plastic bags we found when we cleaned up the jail yard and wrap our feet with them, tucking hot water bottles inside to keep our feet warm while we slept.

Still, it was freezing, achingly cold. I was in so much pain that winter that now, when I'm cold, it reminds me of being there.

Related: [In his pardon announcement, Trump makes no mention of Arpaio’s abuses]

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President Trump pardoned former Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio Aug. 25. Here’s what you need to know. (Patrick Martin, Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

Arpaio saved worse abuse for others. Those who were in full detention had to wear pink socks, underwear and flip-flops. They ate peanut butter and bread, and the only other meal they received was baloney and bread. They also had the option of "slob," which was an unknown, disgusting substance that looked like some kind of thick stew and tasted like cardboard. (The poor people in the work furlough program who couldn't pay for vending-machine food had no choice but to eat it.)

It's hard to recall memories of that year. When I heard Friday that President Trump had decided to pardon Arpaio, I was disgusted, dispirited and disappointed in the American political system.

I am not ashamed of what I did: I committed a crime and I paid my dues. How ironic it is, that the immigrant who committed a minor criminal act has to live with a conviction on his record for the rest of his life, while a criminal like Arpaio gets to walk away unscathed for his crimes, which are greater in scale and severity.

The people of Maricopa County have done so much — spent time, money and energy — trying to let the world know what Arpaio had done. And in a single moment, Trump has destroyed all of that hard work, all of those voices. The president should be bringing us together, especially in the wake of something like Charlottesville, but I think that Trump wants us to be divided, specifically by race. Arpaio's pardon is proof of that.

There's evil in the world that's unrepentant, and I've experienced it firsthand. Arpaio being pardoned is a nightmare come true.

Although politicians like Trump and Arpaio are trying to divide us, this is the time for our community to come together and keep fighting for those whose voices go unheard and kept in the dark. Hope for a better future is what helped me survive the agonizing time I spent in those horrendous facilities, and hope will lead us into a better future for America.

[CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said the author was convicted and sentenced for a DUI. It has been updated to reflect that the incident involved a car accident in which there were injuries, for which the author was charged with aggravated assault.]


Francisco Chairez lives in Arizona.

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