On a Tuesday morning earlier this month, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., waited near a side entrance of the Tent City Jail, the open-air compound he operates in Phoenix. Several female inmates were lined up before him, hands behind their backs, ankles linked by chains. The women wore black-and-white-striped prison uniforms — the kind of throwbacks tourists don for photographs near Alcatraz — with the words “Sheriff’s Inmate” on their backs. Arpaio wore a black suit, black shoes and a white shirt. He looked as if he had raided Johnny Cash’s closet.
Arpaio, now 22 years into his controversial tenure in Maricopa County, has proclaimed himself “America’s toughest sheriff”; he is surely its most media-savvy. That morning, he was outside to greet a film crew from the Miami headquarters of the Spanish-language network Univision. Later, while the cameras gathered scene-setting shots, Arpaio prompted the inmates to request signed copies of Tent City Jail’s campy postcards. “Make sure I do sign your card,” Arpaio told his chain gang. “It’ll be worth something.”