Sheriff Joe Arpaio – the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff” in America – likes Christmas music, especially “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and anything by Alvin and the Chipmunks, and apparently he thinks the 8,000 inmates inside his Phoenix jail should, too.
So it was with some glee that his Maricopa County office announced Thursday in a red-and-green press release that the “sixth and perhaps final lawsuit” brought by inmates to stop the sheriff from playing the holiday songs all day, every day, during the holidays had been dismissed in federal court.
“We keep winning these lawsuits. Inmates should stop acting like the Grinch who stole Christmas and give up wasting the court’s time with such frivolous assertions,” it read. “But chances are they’ll keep suing and we’ll keep winning.”
The latest lawsuit was filed by inmate William Lamb, who said that being forced to listen to the Christmas songs 12 hours a day was a violation of his civil and religious rights. But U.S. District Judge Roz Silver disagreed, dismissing the case and denying Lamb’s claim for $250,000 in damages.
Sheriff Arpaio catapulted to national attention when he cracked down on the thousands of illegal immigrants who swarm daily through his county; put inmates in pink jumpsuits and underwear; worked them in chain gangs; housed them in tents in the Arizona desert and fed them bologna sandwiches.
He said that his Christmas selections were multi-ethnic and culturally diverse, from all faiths and ethnicities. He told The Washington Times earlier this year that in addition to tunes by Alvin and the Chipmunks, the music included the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Bing Crosby and Doctor Demento.
At the time, he said “all people everywhere deserve a little Christmas cheer.”
Lt. Brian Lee, the sheriff’s spokesman, said the court issued a summary judgment upholding the decision to “inject the holiday spirit into the lives of those incarcerated over the holiday season in the third-largest jail system in the U.S.”
He said inmates have sued six times claiming the music was in violation of their religious rights or cruel and unusual punishment, but the court disagreed – finding no evidence of fact, so Sheriff Arpaio was entitled to the judgment as a matter of law.
The sheriff is no stranger to controversy, although his philosophy of “zero tolerance towards the criminal element” has been embraced by his deputies and the community alike. He was first elected in 1996 and was re-elected by double-digit margins in 2000, 2004 and 2008. In 2007 a petition to recall him failed to gain enough voter signatures to get on the ballot.
Most recently he has come to the attention of the federal government. He was notified in March by the Justice Department that he may have unfairly targeted Hispanics and Spanish-speaking people for arrest. In October, the Department of Homeland Security revoked the authority of 160 of his federally trained deputies to make immigration arrests in the field.
The sheriff has denied any wrongdoing and has said he welcomed and would cooperate in any investigation of his office. He has continued to arrest illegal immigrants under recently passed state laws.
Tired of waiting for the federal government to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and concerned about the potential terrorism threat that the lack of border security posed, he assigned deputies in 2006 to monitor his 9,226-square-mile county for illegal immigrants. He targeted the illegals under an anti-smuggling law that state lawmakers passed to fight drug trafficking.
“My message is clear: If you come here and I catch you, you’re going straight to jail,” he said at the time. “We’re going to arrest any illegal who violates this new law, and I’m not going to turn these people over to federal authorities so they can have a free ride back to Mexico. I’ll give them a free ride to my jail.”
Sheriff Arpaio, 77, captured headlines nationwide when he set up a jail system that included tents, spent less than 15 cents per meal per inmate, and banned smoking, coffee, movies, pornographic magazines and unrestricted television in all of his jails. He also assigned both men and women to chain gangs.
The sheriff also has created several rehabilitative programs, including “Hard Knocks High,” the only accredited high school program administered by a sheriff’s office in a U.S. jail.
More recently he has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor, with polls showing that he has a commanding lead as a Republican candidate for the November 2010 race.
A November poll by Rasmussen Reports said that of 1,200 likely Arizona voters, he was the Republicans’ “best shot at holding onto the Arizona governorship in 2010.” The poll said Sheriff Arpaio led the expected Democratic challenger, Terry Goddard, Arizona’s attorney general, by 12 points and that 64 percent of voters statewide said he was doing the right thing by working around federal law to continue his aggressive actions against illegal immigration.
Lt. Lee said his boss had received “multiple inquiries locally and nationally” about the latest Rasmussen poll, but had made no decision regarding the governor’s race.