One of a Kind

10-01-2017Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

When I came to Arizona, I was predisposed to not like Sheriff Joe. I had worked in Jails and Prisons for about a dozen years and “the toughest Sheriff in America” was pretty infamous in the correctional world. His use of striped uniforms, pink underwear, and bologna sandwiches always seemed to me an unnecessary humiliation that didn't add much to correctional goals.  I admit I had some liking for the chain gangs, not so much the chains but putting inmates to work, as most of them actually prefer to do something rather than sit around idle all day.

But I admit that a change of perspective, going from gazing from the outside in, to seeing things up close and personal gave me somewhat of a change of heart. I still don't think the uniforms and bologna sandwiches are necessary (especially since I don't like bologna), but that shouldn't overshadow some of the other effective policies and practices of the former Sheriff. After the Presidential pardon, there has been a whole lot of piling on about his contempt of court conviction and overlooked are some of the things Sheriff Joe did that were actually helpful to our county.

First, he kept Maricopa County rather safe. No easy task considering the expansive geography and the fact that Maricopa County is one of the fasting growing counties in the U.S., but more significantly, his department kept on top of the Sinaloa Drug Cartel that operates in our cities. Granted, the drugs flow pretty freely, but we have not seen the violence that blights Mexico just across the border. Along with that, he targeted the human traffickers that have created the biggest humanitarian tragedy in Arizona when the Federal government has turned a blind eye. And by the way, whenever the Parish needs assistance the Sheriff’s Department responds quickly, plus because of the Posse Program, Sheriff’s Deputies have provided security for our Parish Festival for many years.

Then there’s Tent City. To me, it is a horrifying place that I want to avoid. But then again, that is part of the point: deterrence. Don’t break the law; look what awaits you. Not for me. Over the years I have met dozens of people who were “guests” at Tent City and they all emphatically declare they never wanted to return; ergo, they would find ways to change their lives so as not to return. Again, unexpectedly, the “tents” served a correctional goal, especially for first-time offenders.

Jails and prisons operate on a series of very inflexible rules that can make it difficult for citizen volunteers to access the compounds. The Maricopa County Jails were always wide open to citizen-led programs: religious, educational, rehabilitative. Our Diocesan Prison Ministry rarely had a hard time accessing the jails which is important since one of the goals of the “penitentiary” is penance - that is, resetting your moral compass. Additionally, many 12 Step Groups conduct meetings in the jails each week, again critically important when you consider the overwhelming majority of crimes are drug and alcohol-related. Simply put, Sheriff Joe and his jail managers did not put unnecessary roadblocks in the way of citizen-led programs.  Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the AZ Dept. of Corrections. I have found them very unfriendly to Catholic Prison Ministry, and members of 12 Step Groups need infinite patience when dealing with the Department.

Then, of course, there is the issue of immigration. Should one of the chief law enforcement officers in the county or state actually enforce the law? All the laws, just some laws? Who decides which ones? Sheriff Joe’s cooperation with ICE, his enforcement of AZ E-Verify Law with employers, his raids all exposed a raw nerve in our country over a problem that no one seems to want to fix. Whether you agreed or disagreed with his enforcement practices, the Sheriff brought the issue to our attention (and the Supreme Court’s attention, as well). Unfortunately, we are still a long way from solving the problem of human trafficking, stopping the flow of drugs, and finding solutions to the immigration status of millions of people, as well as fixing the byzantine immigration laws.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio did not shy away from controversy.  He knew how to use the media for his purposes and was not the type of person you could be lukewarm about. All in all, though I disagreed with some of his tactics, over the years I grew to appreciate him and what he was trying to do for the people of Maricopa County. I am especially grateful for the easy access to the Maricopa County Jails that he facilitated. So many of our elected officials are expert at obfuscating and never really telling us what they think or where they stand - not so for Sheriff Joe. Love him or hate him, he left an impression.

Love, Fr. John B.

BACK TO LIST