Last July, introducing the world's first live Internet broadcast from inside a jail, controversial Phoenix, Arizona, sheriff Joe Arpaio called the project educational. "Kids can tune in and see what it's like in the jail," he said proudly. "Maybe they'll learn something." By Internet standards, the round-the-clock "Jail Cam" broadcasts, available free of charge on crime.com a site developed by the producers of the crime "reality" series Copshave been a runaway success. Some parents and anticrime organizations have praised the broadcasts as the "Scared Straight" of the Web age, sure to scare young people away from a life of crime. But the 3 million to 10 million hits daily come not just from inquisitive youths but also from online voyeurs who access the site through links from hundreds of hardcore pornography sites, such as gaygratuit.com, which leads voyeurs to the Jail Cam broadcasts with the question "You fantasize about the cops or prison life?"
The broadcastsfrom which the county reports receiving no revenuemay be illegal as well as unsavory. On May 24, Donna Leone Hamm, a retired lower court judge, filed a lawsuit charging Maricopa County and Sheriff Arpaio with violating detainees' basic privacy rights. (Detainees have been arrested but not yet convicted.) Arizona state law permits the filming of prisoners for security reasons only, not for educational purposes or public consumption. Judge Hamm says the 24 plaintiffs named in the suit feel "violated and humiliated." They are asking for $50,000 each in compensation, not only for having had their privacy violated, but for inhumane treatment in the jail as well (inadequate facilities for pregnant women and mixing sexes in holding cells, for instance).
In seeking to shut down the Jail Cam, Ulises A. Ferragut Jr., the plaintiffs' lead attorney, cites a series of cases along with federal and state laws supporting the privacy of prisoners, which he argues should pertain to detainees as well. In Huskey v. NBC (1986), for example, an Illinois prisoner accused NBC of violating his privacy by filming him without consent. "The Huskey court reasoned that the filming of the prisoner's activities was nothing more than morbid and sensationalistic prying," says Ferragut. He also cites in his "order to show cause" (the documents filed with the court) violations of the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments of the Bill of Rights, which together protect a public citizen's right to privacy. Pending court approval, Ferragut hopes to turn the lawsuit into a class action suit on behalf on an estimated 55,000 detainees, who have found themselves unwilling actors in Arpaio's script. Compensation sought would then reach approximately $3.8 billion.
Arpaio, who as county sheriff has authority over the prison, thought up the Jail Cam. Three cameras provide raw footage of the holding and searching cells of Phoenix's Maricopa County jail. Viewers can see inmates doubled up in small bunk beds or sleeping on the concrete floor, and occasionally bound in "restraint chairs" for bad behavior. But some of the images are more invasive: strip searches, female prisoners in various stages of undress, and, up until late April, a constant, unobstructed view of the women's toilet and the women using it.
In challenging the Jail Cam, prison rights advocates and ex-detainees are not just fighting against the "callous disregard for the human dignity of people in custody," as Angela Wright of Amnesty International summarized. They are not just fighting against Arpaio, either. They are working against the long-held philosophy that humiliation is a central part of incarceration and actually helps to reduce crime.
Arpaio, dubbed "America's Toughest Sheriff" by the media, is an advocate of this philosophy. His policing style specializes in degradation: housing prisoners in a tent compound in the Arizona desert under inhumane conditions, establishing male and female chain gangs, dressing prisoners in pink underwear. Naturally, his methods have drawn media attention, and a made-for-TV movie about Arpaio is in development. The Jail Cam broadcasts, he bragged during a CBS interview, "have drawn people from Sweden, Britain, and Germany to watch officers snap on rubber gloves and frisk incoming arrestees."
Although many law enforcers cast a wary eye on Arpaio's style, the American Deputy Sheriffs' Association recently awarded the 69-year-old sheriff with an "achievement and appreciation award" for his "no-nonsense, straight-shooting, common-sense approach to law enforcement." Arpaio contends "it's because of my policies" that he held an 85 percent approval rating in a recent county survey, and he has hinted that he may run with the Republican Party for governor in 2002.
What is so titillating about the Jail Cam to warrant millions of hits a day? Arpaio has harnessed the allure of "women in prison" films with a government-sponsored twist. There's the excitement over the "pee cam"as some urine fetishists called the toilet shots. Links on dildo.com, nightspicegirls.com, and other fetish porn sites are capitalizing on this peek into prisons. One bondage site encourages viewers to "see those cons abused," while another dared spectators to witness a human zoo in "one of the most sordid American prisons." On the official crime.com site, one related post read, "Beautiful material for my upcoming babes-n-bondage site."
Arpaio's blurring of the fine line between education and exploitation has many critics of the cam incensed. "In Arizona, you have the perp walk writ super-large," says Bill Brown, executive director of Surveillance Camera Players, a New York-based privacy watchdog group, referring to the process in which police parade detainees before photographers (a practice ruled unconstitutional in New York City). "The objectifying stare of the camera lens has given way to the anonymous gaze of anyone who logs in," adds Brown. "Penal culture has become entertainment."
"I realize that I sell my body for money as my job," says Latoya, a former Maricopa County jail detainee and sex worker. "But I didn't have a choice about what the sheriff was doing with my pictures when he put them up on the Internet," where online voyeurs caught glimpses of her body free of charge. Arpaio's use of "prisoners as an entertainment/sexual gratification source is not just perverse," says Hamm via e-mail, "but a major violation of civil liberties."
Arpaio shows little concern, even chuckling in a radio interview with Wired.com over the Jail Cam's ability to "embarrass the inmates." He defends the cam as routine video surveillancenot unlike the video cameras now policing over a million private buildings nationwide.
Lisa Allen, Arpaio's spokesperson, asserts that the cameras never contained the toilet angle, telling the Voice that critics "have been projecting and assuming" that the site's supposed pornographic value makes the county culpable. Washing her hands of the matter, Allen said the jail is "not pleased" about the alleged links, "but there is nothing we can do about it."
"Voyeurism reenforces already tightly held attitudes that prisoners are not really people," notes Hamm. If the detainees' lawsuit succeeds, it could establish a new precedent: replacing humiliation with humaneness.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.