If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like for women in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jail, here’s an account from Gigi, who served some time there this year:
In April 2016, I left San Diego and returned to Tucson to hang out with my family, renew my Canadian passport, plan to teach English in Colombia and attend nursing school in Latin America. On April 19, I woke up after staying with a friend in Tempe and went to Starbucks as she left for work at 7:30. I was groggy and exhausted from working for 4 days and had just taken my first sips of coffee and pulled out my laptop, but couldn’t find my phone. I pulled up “Find my iPhone” on my computer, and texted my friend that I thought I’d lost my phone.
She called Tempe police to come help me find my phone. They showed up about 10 minutes later and the phone was in my car. Fine, I planned to finish my coffee and hopefully not be such a moron afterwards. Thanks, officer!
Ten minutes after I sat down and finished my coffee, the officer came back inside and asked me to step outside. Now, I was unfamiliar with how that worked, so I shrugged and said “OK”. He turned me around, handcuffed me, put all my stuff in the trunk of my car and locked it. I was so completely confused and starting to get hysterical. He put me in the back of the cop car and told me there was a failure-to-appear warrant from November 2007, out of Mesa and extraditable only in Maricopa County. “For what?” I said. “DUI,” he said.
Nearly 10 years ago, I made the mistake of getting in my car under the influence of alcohol. In my pyjamas and high-heeled boots, I was driving over to my boyfriend’s house in Mesa. I rear-ended a car, leaving no damage to theirs and very little to mine. My car was impounded for 30 days (during which everything was stolen from it). I hired a lawyer, went to court, paid the fines and received an 11-day jail sentence.
I showed up to self-surrender on June 12, 2007 at Lower Buckeye jail in Phoenix and was denied entry because at the time I took SSRI medication, which you cannot abruptly stop. I was told it takes weeks to get meds cleared to bring to jail. I asked, “What on earth do I do? I’m moving to Santa Clara on June 26!” They shrugged. I called the courts and they advised me to do my time in California and that would be sufficient.
So in April 2016, I told the arresting officer, “But I did everything! I had a lawyer, I went to court, I paid the fines, all of it”. He transferred me over to a Mesa officer at some medical facility they use for handoffs. By this time, I was crying hysterically, and so confused by what was happening to me.
I asked the Mesa officer, “Why? How? I’ve been through so many background checks for work. How is this even possible that it never showed up?”
“Maricopa County doesn’t share information with other states or counties.”
She asked, “Do you have any paperwork from your court date?”
“January 6, 2007 paperwork on me? Nearly 10 years later? I don’t even live here! Why would I have that on me?”
“Yeah, that’s gonna be a problem if you don’t have that.”
We reached the Mesa City jail and I was placed in a cell with a phone. I made a collect call to my mother finally at 6 pm, 8 hours after I was locked up. I had a $5,000 bond. I told her what had happened and asked to please find a way to get me out. Her response was typical of my mother: she thought I’d done something seriously wrong and now needed punishing.
I was to see the judge at 8:30 the next morning. My mother refused to help me that night and wouldn’t answer phone calls, so my chances of obtaining paperwork were nil. I could only make collect phone calls from the cell. I couldn’t remember my lawyer’s name, much less his number. I couldn’t call my husband in Santa Cruz on his cell phone.
I panicked all night on the floor in my grimy clothes. I stunk. I looked like a nightmare. I suffer from alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes your hair to fall out from stress and the Mesa jail took away my clip-ins that made me look not like the half-bald woman I am. My face was puffy from crying and I was so alone, and so unable to think about what to do or say because there was nothing.
Thankfully a few other women were hauled in for probation violations and I got my first taste of the unbelievable bullshit perpetrated on citizens in Maricopa County. They were placed in the cell with me and I enjoyed hearing people’s life stories and asking questions.
It became apparent to me immediately that once you are in the system, you are trapped, particularly in Mesa. One girl violated probation merely by being on Country Club Rd near Dobson. She had been asked every day for a week for her ID while followed by officers as she walked to Circle K, and that day they decided to bring her in, $50 bond. Another girl was violated for missing one restitution payment and was heading to Estrella jail for 30 days and being stepped up to intensive supervised probation. A homeless woman was brought in for loitering, $50 bond. She was still in Estrella jail run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, when I left on April 30th.
I saw the judge at 8:30 am and she asked me for proof. I replied that it was with my husband in Santa Cruz. She said, “Too bad! 11 days”. And that was it. I got called up to the clerk’s window and told to sign my paper saying I was to do 11 days starting 8:30 on April 20 and I was taken back to the cell to wait. I called my mother who had come to her senses and found a bondsman and had the bond ready to go.
“Too late. I’m about to do 11 days in Estrella. That’s why I asked you to do this last night when something could have been done. I don’t know when I’ll be able to call you again, I don’t know where they’ll take me, or if there will be a phone. I don’t know anything. I’ve never been in jail. All I know is TV jail. Please look into this and see if this is even legal. Isn’t there a statute of limitations on misdemeanor warrants?”
An African-American girl brought over from Estrella to Mesa for court was in my cell with me after court. She said, “Eleven days. That’s easy. I’m doing 30.”
“Really. Easy. How so?”
“You get into the routine. You’ll see.”
Freezing cold, I said that I was envious of her socks. She took them off underneath her leg chains and gave them to me. The sight of her bare brown skin with chains around her ankles hurt my heart. She had three dermal piercings on her cheek. I was amazed she was allowed to keep face jewellery. She got immensely excited by the baloney and cheese sandwich puke given out in Mesa jail. I had refused to eat it and then I was told that it was the best food I would see in days.
Some dude in the holding cell across the way completely lost his shit when he wasn’t given the opportunity to have his sandwich because he was being moved. He completely freaked out.
Night fell at 9 or so. The “Train” arrived, what they called the paddy wagon that delivers you to central booking at 4th Ave jail run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix, affectionately known as “The Matrix” because it’s a maze of hell.
I spent the next 16 hours slumping from cell to cell, seeing a nurse, peeing in a cup, being fingerprinted on the weirdest system I have ever seen, which included printing the sides of my hands and my palms. AFIS the machine said on it. Then regular prints with ink and paper. When you work with anthrax and plague? US Dept Of Justice and DHS clears you to do so. My prints were on file with those agencies. Ink and paper. This felt like a horrible violation, scanning my palms and sides of my hands digitally. On and on it went, more shuffling to one cell and another. People took toilet paper and made nests with it to curl up on the floor with. This displeased the DO’s (detention officers) who refused to provide more TP for actual wiping purposes.
At one station, I was asked, “Have you been here before?”
Out of 30 people before me I am the only one to say no.
Index finger scanned. Birthdate entered incorrectly.
“That’s not my birthdate.”
“Well that’s what it is in the system and once it’s in the system it can’t be changed.”
“But that’s inaccurate!”
My birthdate remained wrong throughout my entire stay.
Finally, we reached the last cell in the 4th Ave jail. Women had mats and blankets. Because I am with two toilet-paper nesters, the DO refused to issue us mats and blankets. And they kept that jail freezing cold – I presume to inhibit microbial growth like hospitals do.
Before I reached this area, I was strip-searched – spread em, squat and cough – and issued my “stripes” along with a sports bra, giant underpants and men’s size 16 plastic slippers. I was immensely glad to be out of the grimy street clothes I’d been huddling in on the floor of a metal and concrete cell for 2 days.
We were rounded up, placed in some type of vehicle and taken to another place. You couldn’t see anything in these vehicles because they were covered in mesh and bulletproof thick plastic. I had no clue where I was being driven, but we could communicate through the mesh. A guy said we were on our way to Lower Buckeye jail, run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
More processing. An assessment to determine where I am to be housed. Am I violent? Racist? History of assault? No. None of the above. Have I ever been convicted of harming a correctional officer? No. An inmate? No. Am I nuts? Sometimes. Do I want to harm myself? Right now? Yes, but no, not actually. Have I ever been diagnosed with a mood disorder? Odd wording. A mood disorder is not what schizophrenia is. But no, general anxiety disorder only.
I qualified for the mellowest environment. Low-grade non-confrontational non-aggressive types. Based on the amount of hollering and threats of beat downs I witnessed, I cannot imagine what the higher security more aggressive female dorms were like. I was assigned to I dorm. As in A,B,C,D,E,F,G,H,I,…..J,K,L,M,N…. There were 100 beds. 100 women. In just that dorm alone. There was a metal table, 5 pay phones (3 of which worked), 3 video-conference machines.
They didn’t allow actual visits in Estrella. The conditions were so deplorable that it would have been an embarrassment to Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s office. Visits were on a machine being broadcast from 4th Ave jail, where your mom sits in a little cell and waits to talk to you for 20 mins. An American Flag adorned one wall. There was a day room with a few chairs and a tube TV encased in plexiglass, which had no volume and when turned on was always on the food network. I was certain that was done out of cruelty by the jail because the food was inedible for the most part.
I was issued a rolled-up bundle of sheets, blanket, washcloth and towel. That was it. No toothpaste, no toothbrush, nothing. I had only a card from booking with my charge on it and the words FULLY SENTENCED. M1 Extreme DUI BAC 1.5 or over. January 6, 2007. I had to continually show it to people because they were flabbergasted that the sheriff’s office would be so petty.
And then I started to meet a lot of women with the same story, and what I learned in the next 11 days infuriated me as such obvious railroading of humans to generate revenue for this bloated beast of a city. That is all Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s office is: a revolving door of revenue that lines the pockets of the officials at the helm. I actually had to pay to go to Estrella jail. It was built into my fines 10 years ago. And then you pay some more when you get there.
The first greeting as I head to the restroom was a little doughy faced Mesa gang member wannabe who wanted to know if I smuggled in drugs?
She was visibly pissed and stomped off to ask the other two I came in with.
When we came through the last transfer point, the DO said to us, “I’m supposed to search you guys, but I’m not gonna. But I’m supposed to, but I won’t.”
At the time, I was thinking “Oh just shut up and let’s get on with it.” Now I realized how the drugs get in. Through her and many like her. I cannot imagine anything more tedious than getting loaded in jail simply because you are essentially in your bed for 23.5 hours a day. You eat in your bed, sleep, and just ponder things. You can also pace furiously around the room but it’s only maybe 2000 square feet and there are 100 women in it. Panic attacks forced me to breathe, pray, and walk in circles. I’ve had them my whole life, usually a few years apart from the last but in there? 8 out of 11 days I had a panic attack. And there is nothing you can do. You can’t smoke a cigarette, go outside, have a drink, nothing. So you sit, with your heart about to burst out of your chest, and you shake and you wait for it to pass.
I began to talk to all the women around me and ask questions. I have always found that when you treat people with respect they tend to give it back. This holds true in jail as well. The woman in the bunk in front of me was in jail awaiting transfer to DOC (prison) for driving on a suspended license with drug metabolites in her system. She was about to do 2½ years in prison for a DUI (drunk driving). I asked her when she did the drugs.
“Two or 3 days before.”
I told her, “You know there are reference ranges right? They can show how long ago you ingested/took something. If it had been 2 days prior, you were not impaired. Did your lawyer look into that?”
“No. I couldn’t afford a private attorney because they want $8000 up front. I had a public defender.”
“My god, I would demand to see the serum levels and the reference criteria! Before I’d agree to 2½ years in prison!” But if you aren’t aware of such things? And no one tells you? You take what you think is an OK deal. This woman had children, one of whom was starting at Arizona State University. She had a disability and also had a fiance dying of esophageal cancer. She was 41. Her life was over. After prison, probation, until she’s 50. She had a career, a life, a home. And she hadn’t seen daylight in 90 days and wouldn’t for a long time more.
Another woman I met was in for her second DUI. She would also serve a tremendously long sentence and her son had been taken by CPS. He was being given Ritalin by the state. She disagreed with this, but there was nothing she could do about it. He was fine, never diagnosed with ADD/ADHD before. She’d taken care of him alone for 11 years and now he was a ward of the state, in the foster care system, and on psych meds and she had no say in the matter.
Part 2 of this story will be posted next week.