Prisoner treatment defines us
It was quite noticeable a couple of weeks ago when the top front-page news stories in The Corydon Democrat, situated side-by-side, were two articles, one about the Harrison County Republican Party bringing Arizona’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio to Corydon to raise money and another about the huge amount of money in tort claims Harrison County is facing due to mistreatment of prisoners in the county jail.
Since those articles were published, a female prisoner being held at the jail died, three corrections officers were arrested and charged with jail-related felony crimes and two former inmates were charged with seriously beating another inmate at the jail.
Add to all of this the payouts made in the past, and the possible new lawsuits the county is facing due to the alleged conduct of the county sheriff, and we’ve got a financial train wreck just waiting to happen. The legal bills alone will probably be staggering.
So, we’re all familiar with the problems, expense, loss of credibility and downright humiliation the county has suffered due to an out-of-control elected official, one that even the county’s Board of Commissioners is helpless to remedy. If, by now, we still don’t know what it takes to be a good sheriff, we should be all too familiar with what it takes to be a controversial one. And we should be able see what happens when there is a lack of leadership at a place like our jail, where people are in control of other people’s health and well-being.
We’ve all heard about heinous crimes where a child was molested and murdered or a person was beaten to death. Those are the times when most of us will think about the old term, ‘Lock them up and throw away the key’ or ‘Drag them out in the road and shoot them,’ but we really don’t want vigilante justice. We are Americans, living in a civilized society, a country of laws. And we’re proud to be here, and equally proud of those laws. We just insist that those laws are followed and have faith that our laws will dispense justice and the proper punishment.
Our system of laws is set up to be fair, not cruel. And even though there are times when, by following those laws, the system fails to punish, it still has worked if the perpetrator isn’t punished improperly. Yes, there are criminals who many of us may want to shoot on sight, but we aren’t the police, prosecutor, judge and jury. The most we can be is the accuser; the system will take care of the rest, and, if they do it right, there will be fairness to all involved. That’s why we have a court system.
Arpaio doesn’t believe in following the ‘letter of the law’; he actually believes he is the law, and maybe Arizona has allowed him that privilege. The rule of law is whatever he says it is. If Arpaio was the sheriff here, the three men arrested last week would be dressed in pink underwear and flip-flops ‘ nothing else ‘ and be chained together, marched across town for all to see, taken to a tent city and held there, regardless of the weather conditions, even before they are convicted of a crime. Accusations are one thing; convictions are something else entirely. And if Arpaio were in charge here, he’d try to find a way to arrest anyone who questioned him, like he does in Maricopa County. He’d hold a grudge against any reporter who wrote about the many violations involving him, he’d refuse to furnish any information or records to the Justice Department although they’ve been requested several times and, in other words, he’d be out of control, just like he is in Arizona.
Sheriff Tim Wilkerson of Crawford County, a Republican, said it best a couple of years ago when he was called in during the night to take a prisoner to the emergency room for an illness. ‘I have to do whatever it takes to keep my prisoners safe and healthy,’ he said. ‘It’s my job to house them, not to judge or punish them. That’s the prosecutor’s and the court’s job. The judge will decide punishment, not me or my staff.’
And that’s the way it should work all over the country. The sheriff’s job is to run the jail in each county, not to be a one-man law enforcement king who answers to no one. We already know how that works, don’t we?
Arpaio’s appearance in Harrison County is another black eye for an already humiliated community, a community that will probably be paying out the nose for years to come, a community that, because of that black eye, tourists may choose to avoid, and businesses may ignore as they drive on past Exit 105 when looking for a place to set up shop. No one, except maybe the Republican Party that brought Arpaio here, wants to live in a place where the chief law enforcement officer is out of control. Why would we ever want to bring in ideas that have caused 2,700 lawsuits for Maricopa County, Ariz.? Could this county afford that? Would we want to? And why would we want to degrade those being held in our jail, even before they are convicted of a crime? Why would we want a sheriff who thinks he is the arresting officer, the prosecutor, the jury and the judge? There’s an old saying that you can judge how civilized a country is by taking a walk through its prisons. So, fair treatment of our prisoners is not about who they are or what they’ve done; it’s about who we are, supposedly honorable, law-abiding Americans. When we no longer value that, we cease to be a civilized country.