Monday , February 26 2024
A searing indictment of Arizona's jail system.

Book Review: Hard Time: Life with Sheriff Joe Arpaio in America’s Toughest Jail by Shaun Attwood

“English Shaun” Attwood was a British expatriate living the high life as a stockbroker by day, and an Ecstasy-dealing raver by night. The combination of big money and lots of drugs is always a bad one, but it became a nearly fatal one for him. You see, Attwood’s crimes took place in Phoenix, Arizona — home of the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The abuses, graft, violent conflicts of interest, and other crimes committed in Arpaio’s jails have been documented before. But never by someone who spent two years inside.

Attwood’s new book, Hard Time: Life with Sheriff Joe Arpaio in America’s Toughest Jail describes the conditions of the (then) young man’s stint in these “temporary” holding facilities. The author was being housed in these jails before being actually sentenced to prison. The reason he was unable to bail out was that his was set at $1.5 million, a figure much higher than Arizona’s finest murderers routinely receive. The result of his ordeal is this sickening account of absolute sadism under the guise of law and order.

The jail environment is not supposed to be a pleasant one. But how bad should it be allowed to get? It seems Sheriff Arpaio’s mission is to find out just how far he can push things. The inmate death toll under his watch is the highest in the nation. In these jails, an integral part of the food supply is baloney sandwiches, made from moldy bread and a green baloney that is delivered in boxes stamped “Not Fit for Human Consumption.”

There is no system of air-conditioning at all (remember, this is Arizona — where temperatures often top 100 degrees), and the medical care is non-existent. Evidently the cockroaches feed off the pus generated by the MRSA-infected sores of spider bites.

While reading Hard Time, I often cringed at some of the situations Attwood described. Some of these instances seem to come straight out of the old HBO series OZ. While the author admits his guilt right up front, and expects to do prison time, we need to remember where all of these deaths and other atrocities are occurring. Sherriff Arpaio’s jails are holding people accused of crimes. Nobody there has been convicted or sentenced yet. Have we reached the point where the mere filing of a charge is enough to send someone to this type of hell hole?

Shaun Attwood was eventually sentenced to nine years in prison for his drug activities. He has since been released, and now speaks to teens as an anti-drug crusader. He also says that the two years he spent waiting to be sentenced in Arpaio’s jails were far worse than the nine he spent in prison.

What makes Hard Time so readable is Attwood’s obvious talent as a first time writer. There is no “woe is me” tone present, or prevarication about his being non-violent crimes. He takes his lumps, but he also shows just how ridiculous the whole situation there is. For example, he claims that he had never seen as much crystal meth on the outside as he did on the inside. Meth is a particularly nasty drug to have floating around in an already extremely dangerous environment. He is very lucky to have survived for two years.

There are also a number of humanizing moments, that he and his various cell mates share over time. These little glimpses of humanity in the midst of such squalor open up this tale to the rest of us. I certainly could not help wondering what I would do if faced with such a situation. Yes, of course, jail is intended as a deterrent, but this is like being thrown into the lion’s den.

Hard Time is a fascinating first-time book, and an eye-opening look at what is going on in the Phoenix jail system. This trampling of basic human rights needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, it seems Arpaio has so much power as to be immune. Just ask the former publisher of Arizona’s New Times newspaper, who was arrested in 2007 while investigating the abuses of the jail system. The investigation ended immediately.

Hopefully Shaun Attwood’s new book will cast more light on this intolerable situation. It is a harrowing, and at times oddly humorous account of life in hell. I only wish it was a fictional tale, because things like this should not be going on in America today. Hard Time is eye-opening, to say the least.

About Greg Barbrick

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